Neighborhood Transformation
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Miami Herald - January 28, 2016

Schools officials: Liberty Square redevelopment could hurt students, schools
A charter school planned as part of the Liberty Square redevelopment would hurt nearby under-enrolled City public schools


Miami-Dade County’s plan to raze and redevelop Liberty Square could prove detrimental to hundreds of children and the Liberty City public schools fed by Miami’s oldest and largest public housing project, the Miami-Dade School District has warned.

Weighing in for the first time since Mayor Carlos Gimenez rolled out his Liberty Square Rising proposal one year ago, school district officials say they’re concerned about plans to move dozens of families from Liberty City to Brownsville in the project’s first phase. They’re also worried about the increasing likelihood that a large charter school will be built, potentially siphoning students away from under-enrolled schools.

If Related Urban’s proposal to redevelop Liberty Square shows two different charter schools. "If a charter school is built, this will have an enormous negative impact on public schools in Liberty City," said Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, the school board member who represents Liberty City. "I believe it would decimate a majority of the schools."

Bids were first submitted this summer for the project, in which the county will contribute up to $48 million. But Gimenez doesn’t expect to recommend a developer for the roughly $250 million project until the end of February, setting the stage for a crucial vote by county commissioners. His choice has been narrowed down to Atlantic Pacific Communities and Related Urban Development Group, which must submit final offers by Feb. 5.

Plans submitted so far by both developers show each is planning more than 1,000 combined residential units, including at least 640 public housing apartments. Both developers would first develop homes in Brownsville on the former Lincoln Gardens housing project site, move dozens of families there from Liberty Square, then redevelop the 66-acre Liberty Square complex in phases so that no one else is forced to leave the project during construction.

Both plans include shops, community service centers and charter schools as large as 77,000 square feet, big enough to hold more than 600 students.

District enrollment figures from October show most area schools fed by Liberty Square are significantly under-enrolled. The district is also investing more than $20 million into Brownsville Middle, Charles R. Drew K8, Holmes Elementary, Lenora B. Smith Elementary and Miami Northwestern Senior High through a voter-approved bond initiative.

"They are all under-enrolled, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools is spending a fortune renovating these schools," Raquel Regalado, a school board member and Miami-Dade mayoral candidate, said Tuesday during an appearance at a Hadley Park homeowners association meeting. "We can’t continue to duplicate resources."

In a statement issued to the Miami Herald, school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said administrators are concerned that the redevelopment could "impact student achievement and attendance, decrease enrollment in neighborhood schools, increase enrollment in relief schools and bring about additional costs associated with student transportation."

"Despite our shared responsibility to children and their families, Miami-Dade County has not communicated with our school district regarding the imminent Liberty Square public housing development project or the school choice considerations reported in the media," she said. "However, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has been aggressively analyzing the logistical and financial implications this will have on the displaced families, including the more than 700 children living and attending schools in the affected area."

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho sent Gimenez a letter Thursday requesting a meeting about the project.

Concerns about charter schools at Liberty Square also came up Wednesday night during an NAACP meeting with deputy county mayor Russell Benford. And Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who represents Liberty City and attended Miami Northwestern High, said he’s generally uncomfortable with anything that would divert resources from area public schools.

Both developers left in the running would increase the amount of housing in the area by several hundred units, likely increasing the number of students in the neighborhood, so adding charter schools wouldn’t necessarily be a zero-sum game. A prime argument for charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, is that they give additional options for students and families beyond their home schools.

Michael Liu, the county’s housing director, said he has met several times with Bendross-Mindingall. He said he has unsuccessfully requested meetings with Carvalho about the project, but Gonzalez-Diego said the district has no record of Liu ever reaching out to discuss the project.

Liu said the county is sensitive to the project’s potential effect on schools and children.

"The bottom line is we are sensitive to the issue of students perhaps moving or going to another school when the Lincoln Gardens site is developed a couple of miles away," he said. "We’ve certainly been sensitive to it, and we’ll work with the school district to cooperatively mitigate any impacts and hopefully make it a positive situation."