School Safety: Unsafe Structures

Published March 1, 2004

Many students could have been injured last October when a 30-foot span of ceiling collapsed in a school library built by the Miami-Dade County Public School District (MDCPS) only five years earlier. Fortunately, the structural failure occurred on a weekend, when no students were working at the tables and chairs crushed by the debris.

But to Surfside Mayor Paul Novack, not only had the ceiling failed, but “the process of construction, inspection, and acceptance had failed, further raising concerns over the safety of school facilities” in the Miami-Dade District. District inspectors had not checked the ceiling work, part of a $3.4 million remodeling project.

Novack had previously raised concerns about the safety of children in Miami Beach High School when he found fire doors padlocked, the fire alarm system dysfunctional, and local fire chiefs powerless to enforce remedies. State law was subsequently changed to give local fire chiefs authority to enforce fire code provisions in schools. Responding to reports of other MDCPS deficiencies, the State of Florida established an Advisory and Oversight Board for the District and appointed Novack to the Board.

Among the concerns the Advisory Board identified about MDCPS operations:

  • The Advisory Board had difficulty in “receiving accurate and complete financial information” from MDCPS.
  • MDCPS routinely failed to hold building firms liable for construction flaws and then paid exorbitant fees to have problems corrected.
  • Information provided by MDCPS on its construction projects was “incomplete, inaccurate, contradictory, and misleading.”
  • Only 53 percent of a 1988 $980 million bond issue was actually spent on construction.
  • Funds intended for maintenance of older schools have been diverted to correct defects in new construction, leading to deferred maintenance needs in excess of $1 billion.

Last May, Novack and the Advisory Board called for a comprehensive forensic audit of the District’s Capital Construction Program, but the request has yet to be approved.

Early last year, the Miami Herald ran a five-part series of articles resulting from the newspaper’s investigation of “Crumbling Schools, Crowded Classrooms” in Dade County schools. Among the findings: Despite having received almost $6 billion since 1988 for building, repairing, and maintaining schools, more than 44,000 repeatedly flagged fire- and life-safety hazards remained uncorrected, and many schools lacked basic safety items such as fire extinguishers, exit signs, and smoke detectors.

“While taxpayers are being serially ripped off, it’s the children who are paying the highest price for the school district’s misconduct,” said Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. “They’re the ones being crammed into overcrowded classrooms inside crumbling firetraps.”

For more information …

Further information on school safety issues in South Florida is available online from the Town of Surfside at

The Miami Herald‘s “Crumbling Schools, Crowded Classrooms” series is available online at