A Merry-Go-Round of Irresponsibility: an exclusive interview with Paul D. Novack

Published April 1, 2003

The Miami-Dade County Public School District is the fourth-largest in the country, and it appears to be too big for its own good. Its land area is larger than some states, and its budget rivals that of many nations. Yet it produces very little efficiently and seeks to evade accountability for what it does produce. … So I think we have to look at reducing the size of the district.

Although active community service is a tradition in his family, Paul D. Novack is setting the bar at a whole new level as a leader in local government, a humanitarian, an educator, and a reformer.

Novack is the mayor of Surfside, Florida, an oceanfront town of 4,500 nestled between Miami Beach and Bal Harbour. His father served in the town’s volunteer fire department and his mother served both as a public official and as an officer in numerous civic organizations.

Novack, too, has served in many civic groups, and he is a volunteer member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. He also sponsors several community projects and acts as pro bono counsel for a number of synagogues, churches, and community organizations. As a volunteer, he personally led emergency relief delivery teams into Haiti and organized disaster relief for Honduras and the Dominican Republic. These and other efforts, including building support for democratic systems, have earned him numerous awards, including recognition as “Humanitarian of the Year” in 1995.

Following his persistent efforts to improve school safety and accountability both locally and across the state, Novack was recently appointed to the newly formed State Oversight Board for the Miami-Dade County Public School District. He has been active in the district for many years as a volunteer speech and debate teacher as well as serving on various school committees and founding an innovative after-school recreation program. He has received numerous awards from local schools, including being named “School Volunteer of the Year” in 2000.

Now in his sixth term as mayor, Novack believes in the importance of getting the best value for taxpayers’ dollars, while at the same time not shirking responsibility for making substantial investments in public safety, infrastructure maintenance, and facility renovation. Although Surfside’s service levels have been upgraded substantially during his administration, the town’s property tax rate has not been increased.

A graduate of the University of Miami, Novack also earned a J.D. from Nova Southeastern University College of Law, where he served as an editor of the law review. He is married, with two children. He recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in school safety?

Novack: I have children in our public schools here in Miami-Dade County. I also went to them myself, and I’ve always been very concerned about our public school system because I recognize how vitally important it is, not only for students and educators but for the entire community. The state of our public school system has a great impact on many things all of our communities face–obviously education of children but also economic development, public safety, fiscal responsibility, and the use of public funds.

In November 1999, I was invited to serve as Principal-for-a-Day at Miami Beach Senior High School, which is my alma mater. I saw there were many great things happening at the school. The problem I saw, though, was that the students and teachers there were achieving excellence despite their facilities. I saw a daily struggle to overcome the obstacles placed in the way of an educational program by a grossly deficient educational facility.

I also saw things that appeared to be unsafe, and so I commenced an investigation into the condition of the school. The more I learned, the more disturbed I became because not only were there a vast number of safety and structural deficiencies in the building, but these defects had been documented and reported to the district annually for more than a decade. Over time, the school had become an accumulation of facility defects, fire hazards, and neglect that grew worse and more threatening every year.

For example, inspection reports listed dozens of pages of “life-threatening issues”: some of the drapes were made of flammable material; some ceiling tiles were combustible; there were no fire extinguishers or fire blankets; exit gates were padlocked. One of the most disturbing things of all was that there were no working fire alarms. Throughout the campus, there were hundreds of fire alarm pull stations in student areas but not a single one was operational. Even worse, the back-up alarm system did not work any better.

I brought in engineers and inspectors, and the more we looked at it, the worse it got. Not only were the children under some degree of threat every day, but also there was a severe degree of irresponsibility on the part of public school officials. It quickly became clear the school was beyond repair and so I suggested a two-track approach, which was to make emergency repairs to eliminate the life-threatening aspects of the code violations, and then move on to plan and build a new school. Over the next few years, the school system spent millions of dollars on studies, reviews, and attempts to avoid addressing the problem, only to eventually reach the same conclusion.

At first, the district denied there was a problem. Then they admitted a few problems. That transitioned into a need for major repairs, which eventually brought a concession that it would cost more to do the repairs than to build a new school. But at each stage of this merry-go-round, the district would go through a planning and design process involving payments to outside consultants, architects, engineers, and inspectors. After that, they began the process of designing and building a new school, which I found was yet another merry-go-round.

I have found many patterns within the policies and practices of the Miami-Dade public school district that indicate an inefficient and neglectful system. The patterns are what are very distressing. You’re always going to find problems with major construction programs, but when you see the same deficiencies occur over and over again with no attempt at correction, then the level of concern with the district grows and grows.

Clowes: So there is no incentive to make construction and maintenance more efficient?

Novack: That’s right. In fact, the system seems intentionally designed to perpetuate the same mistakes over and over again. For example, we recently discovered serious water intrusion defects in the district’s brand new schools. These are the same problems the district has encountered with other new schools built over the past decade. But instead of recognizing a problem in a construction project and then making sure it didn’t happen again, the school system has ignored them.

The way state law was written when I came into this issue was that fire marshals could do an inspection at a school, but they could not require any corrective action. Public schools were specifically excluded from the authority of fire marshals and fire chiefs throughout the state of Florida. If the violations found at Beach High had been found in an unoccupied warehouse, the fire marshals could have ordered it closed until repaired. They couldn’t do that with a public school.

Unfortunately, in situations like this where jurisdiction is unclear, many people in government prefer to say, “It’s not my job.” They don’t want the responsibility or the accountability. Then the ball gets fumbled and nobody picks it up. Nobody wants it.

Clowes: That was clearly the case at Miami Beach High.

Novack: Well, not just at Beach High. That’s where it really started to get disturbing. Since what was happening at that campus was such a blatant breach of responsibility, I started researching the annual fire safety inspection records for other schools within our district. I found school after school with life-threatening hazards that had been documented and then systematically ignored for years.

Then I found there were similar problems in other counties in Florida. That’s when I tried to get the state legislature to recognize that the present system had no checks and balances. The public school districts were an entity unto themselves, who could not be forced to correct fire safety problems. There was a complete absence of accountability throughout fire safety and construction issues.

Over a two-year period, the state legislature came to realize what was happening and changed the law last year. Now, fire marshals throughout the state are empowered not only to inspect schools annually but to order compliance. If a public school district fails to correct any life-threatening hazard, the fire marshal now has the authority to close the school down.

Clowes: You would normally expect the school board to respond to issues like this.

Novack: That’s what I expected. I expected the school board to mobilize personnel and resources and to send the cavalry out to these schools to fix fire alarm systems, to open emergency exits, to do whatever it had to do. I was shocked to see them do just the opposite. Their solution at Miami Beach High was to send in painters to replace the inoperable fire alarm pull boxes with switch plates and paint them over to look like an abandoned switch plate. I have photographs of every step of that process, from the broken pull box all the way to the new switch plate.

Then they claimed they didn’t need pull boxes under their interpretation of the code. I pleaded with them: “Don’t wait for a disaster.” At one point, I was told not to worry because “Beach High is next to a fire station.”

Because of the new law and the spotlight we had focused on the Miami-Dade schools, the district has now made a lot of repairs. We’re stuck with some old buildings that wouldn’t meet modern code, and a recent survey found many violations still exist, but at least now we don’t have nearly as egregious a situation as we had before.

Clowes: You mentioned problems with new construction, too.

Novack: Many of these things are inter-related. When I got a handle on the need to ratchet up safety levels, I started looking at why and how this could happen. The response I kept getting was that the system didn’t have enough money, and they couldn’t afford to maintain the schools because the state didn’t provide enough money for public education. But it turned out that where the school system was strapped for cash, it was because of its own waste in squandering so much money. Overall, it actually had more than enough money to fix the problems.

The people of Miami-Dade County have repeatedly been willing to tax themselves for public education. We are united in saying public education is a priority, and we are willing to pay for it. But what has happened is that there is a terribly unproductive use of our tax dollars. There is a grossly inefficient system here that perpetuates itself year after year. Every few years, the system drapes itself in the clothes of reform, holds up the sign of reform, and proclaims accountability across the land. But nothing changes.

The district claims to have no money for new schools, but in recent months I have uncovered documents showing they have about $1.2 billion in currently available resources, including $400 million in cash. That $400 million is sitting idle while the district does its usual dance of: create a design; develop a plan from the design; commission a study to review the plan; hire consultants to review the study that reviewed the plan; then throw out the design and start all over again. I wish this were some sort of a comedy movie, but it’s not. This is the way the district operates.

Clowes: What happens when a new school is built?

Novack: This is another disturbing pattern you see over and over again in the district.

First, the school district approves a construction project after years of preliminary study.

Second, the project takes much more time and costs much more money than was allocated.

Third, the district inspects the completed school and documents all of the construction defects, which sometimes run to hundreds of pages.

Fourth, the district ignores the reported defects, accepts the school as finished, and makes full payment to the contractor.

Fifth, the district opens the school and immediately encounters problems arising from the construction defects, such as leaks and floods; the district documents the problems but carries out only minor or cosmetic repairs.

Sixth, when the warranty on the school construction has expired, the district assigns its own maintenance staff to fix the construction defects; this diverts maintenance efforts from the older schools.

Because of this merry-go-round of irresponsibility, the new schools cost taxpayers too much to build in the first place, their defects consume the district’s maintenance crews, and the older schools rot from neglect so they have to be replaced by new ones. And at every chair on this merry-go-round, the public pays.

Clowes: They pay their taxes but don’t get their money’s worth?

Novack: They don’t. Our people here are paying for an “A+” education system but they’re getting only a “D” system for their money. As a government official, I know that, generally, government can’t do all it wants to because its resources are limited. That’s not what we have here. This is a situation where enough money has flowed in but it’s been squandered.

I picture this process as a pipeline of money from the public to the schools. The public funnels a lot of money into this pipeline to pay for school construction and maintenance. Yet the school district allows so much money to leak out of holes in the pipeline that very little of the public’s investment gets through to the other end in the form of a first-class, modern, state-of-the-art school. That’s what we’re paying for, but that’s not what we’re getting.

Clowes: What could be done to establish a more accountable system?

Novack: One of the things we should look at is the size of our school districts. The Miami-Dade County Public School District is the fourth-largest in the country, and it appears to be too big for its own good. Its land area is larger than some states, and its budget rivals that of many nations. Yet it produces very little efficiently and seeks to evade accountability for what it does produce. It has been unable to manage any of its major programs in education, construction, maintenance, or safety. It has lost control over efficiently spending money and producing results. So I think we have to look at reducing the size of the district.

A smaller district would be much closer to the people and there would be a higher level of participation in the system. Right now, with a district that runs from a downtown headquarters and that arrogantly precludes parental involvement and participation, it’s become so big, so unwieldy, and so detached that it perpetuates itself in any way it wishes. It’s lost all contact with what’s happening in the schools.

Clowes: Do you have any advice for mayors in other communities?

Novack: I think mayors need to look to how municipalities can work together on the mutual goals they have with the public school districts. This doesn’t mean taking them over, but there should be more cooperation and coordination. For example, cities usually do their planning and zoning without regard to available school capacity.

As a system, though, this will work only if the school district is capable of using its resources effectively. The funds for public schools are a very large percentage of the money that the public puts into play for the public interest, and those funds could be used so much more productively. If you did that, you would see benefits not only in education but also in public safety, economic development, job creation, and many other areas.

For more information …

Further information on school safety and construction issues is available at the Town of Surfside’s Web site at http://town.surfside.fl.us/schools.html.