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7/26/01 Miami Today News


By Catherine Lackner

A land swap that would pave the way for a charter school to be built in downtown Miami appears to be a go.

The parcel proposed for the school is west of the City of Miami police station at 400 NW Second Ave. and is owned by the county. The school is being sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority. Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to consider today (7/26) a proposal to swap the lot for the Hickman Building at Northwest Second Avenue and Second Street, owned by the City of Miami. "The county doesn't have a problem with the swap," Willy Gort, Miami commissioner and authority chairman, told the board of directors. "So it looks like the charter school is going to get done.

"For four years, everyone here at the DDA has said that if we really want a 24-hour downtown we have to have the charter school," Mr. Gort said last week. "Now, no one has the excuse of not moving here because there are no schools." Miami-Dade Public Schools can't build a traditional school downtown because there isn't a site that's large enough, he said.

Charter schools are financed by the state and county school district but run by independent groups or businesses. The schools follow state requirements in areas of testing and safety, but can be structured to fit needs of parents or the area.

There are about 15 charter schools in the county. Charter Schoolhouse Developers, chosen by the authority to run the downtown school, also manages one for Ryder System Inc. in West Dade, according to Joaquin G. Avino of Charter Schoolhouse Developers. If the county approves the pending land deal, it will be reviewed by the Miami City Commission, where approval is expected. The deal requires the county to lease the site to Miami, which will lease it to the DDA.

It's not known if legal wrangling for the land will delay the school's projected opening in August 2002. Board member Jorge Perez asked how the group could ensure that the school doesn't become a "troubled" one.

"The fact is, you have some of the worst schools not too far away," Mr. Perez said. If the school is used to relieve crowding from ones in the Culmer and Little Havana areas, he said, "you're not going to achieve your purpose. School performance is directly associated with income levels."

"It will be marketed to employers downtown," said Patti Allen, DDA executive director. "That's the market we're going to get." The school is expected to cost $6 million, of which about $5 million will be financed, board member Matt Gorson has said. Charter Schools USA may run the school for a percentage of revenues, but agreements with Charter Schoolhouse Developers and Charter Schools USA are being negotiated, said Mark Wallace, lawyer and consultant to the authority. All income projections have been based on 95% enrollment but "what happens if the school fails?" Mr. Gorson asked. "Is the City of Miami willing to take the risk?"

Somebody will have a use for the land, said DDA Chairman Gort, who has also asked that the city be given first right of refusal if the land changes hands because the school fails.