Ayala is 1st Hispanic elected to PBC school board; Barbieri, McQuinn retain seats

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The Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | August 18, 2020

Alexandria Ayala is the first Hispanic school board member elected by Palm Beach County voters.

County commission aide Alexandria Ayala defeated two rivals Tuesday to win an open seat on the Palm Beach County School Board, while two board members held off challengers to keep their seats.

With her victory, Ayala became the first person of Hispanic descent elected to the school board and, at 27, the youngest board member in recent memory. She replaces longtime board member Chuck Shaw, who decided not to seek reelection.

Ayala won the District 2 seat by defeating Virginia Savietto, also a county commission aide, and David DiCrescenzo, a safety compliance officer.

With all precincts and early votes and most vote-by-mail ballots counted, Ayala had 56% of the 23,701 votes cast.

School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri won a fourth term in his District 5 seat with 60% of 37,773 votes, defeating Suzanne Page, a former Boca Raton city planner.

Board member Barbara McQuinn handily beat entrepreneur Bonnie Jo Pettinga with 77% of 40,941 votes for a second term in the District 1 seat.

Although more than a third of the school district’s 196,000 students are Hispanic, Ayala is the first Hispanic school board member elected by county voters.

In 2002, Ed Garcia became the first Hispanic board member when he was appointed to a vacant seat by Gov. Jeb. Bush. But he resigned 10 months later and never faced voters.

Ayala, a former political campaign manager and engagement director for the state Democratic Party, had the most establishment support in the three-way race, drawing endorsements from the teachers unions, the county Economic Council and a host of Democratic legislators and mayors.

Born in Puerto Rico, she moved to Palm Springs at 7 and graduated from John I. Leonard High School in nearby Greenacres.

She has vowed as a board member to be more active and visible in her largely Hispanic district, which comprises much of the central county. And she said she would push the district to cooperate more with other government agencies and local businesses.

In an interview, Ayala said she was thrilled by Tuesday’s victory and cognizant of setting an example for other young aspiring political leaders.

In a county where few Hispanics have held countywide elected office, “for a long time there have been a lot of conversations about getting folks in office at that level,” she said.

At 27, Ayala is among the youngest school board members in the state. She said she hopes her contributions make clear that “you don’t have to be of a certain age to encourage and give enthusiasm to people to support your vision.”

“Me being 27 and in the position I’m in in my life, it doesn’t stop me from bringing things to the table,” she said.

Her role as an aide to County Commissioner Robert Weinroth could come under scrutiny when she takes office in November. As agencies, the school board and county commission are occasionally at cross purposes.

For now, she said she has no plans to resign her position in Weinroth’s office, but she said she will confer with school board and county attorneys to decide if her dual role poses legal problems or potential conflicts of interest.

“If there’s a way to make it work, then I’m willing to have that conversation,” she said.

Creating a conflict or the perception of a conflict is “the last thing I want to do,” she added. “I want to avoid any kind of issue.”

In the District 5 race, Barbieri faced his first opponent since being elected in 2008 to the seat representing the Boca Raton area. Saying he was occupied with school reopening plans, he did little campaigning.

But his opponent, political newcomer Suzanne Page, ran arguably a lower-profile campaign, raising few campaign donations, announcing no endorsements and declining interview requests from local media.

A longtime attorney, Barbieri is the most outspoken board member, known to criticize officials publicly and call attention to what he sees as government failing from the meeting dais.

First-term board member Barbara McQuinn, 72, retained her District 1 seat representing the north county, defeating Bonnie Jo Pettinga, an entrepreneur and newcomer to the local education scene.

A retired principal, McQuinn last month persuaded her school board colleagues to postpone the start of the school year by three weeks, to Aug. 31.

School board members serve four-year terms and earn $44,892 annually.

Photo: Alexandria Ayala (center) won a three-way race for an open seat on the Palm Beach County School Board, while board members Barbara McQuinn (left) and Frank Barbieri (right) were re-elected. Photos contributed, Palm Beach Post staff.