Miami Herald | By Sommer Brugal | May 3, 2022
When the Miami-Dade School Board emerges from the November election, it’s likely there will be two new people on the board with ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has worked with the GOP-led Legislature to restrict what teachers can say to their students about gender issues and limit what they can teach about Black history.
The two new members — one could be elected, and another DeSantis could appoint — would be joined by another board member who was initially appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott, now one of the two Republican senators representing Florida.
This scenario came into sharper focus Wednesday when longtime board chair Perla Tabares Hantman, 81, announced she would not seek reelection after serving nearly three decades on the nine-member board. The only person running for her District 4 seat, so far, is Roberto Alonso, a 42-year-old Hialeah businessman whom DeSantis appointed to the Miami Dade College Board of Trustees in 2020. (The deadline to get on the School Board ballot is mid-June.)
DESANTIS COULD APPOINT BOARD MEMBER
At the same time, Christi Fraga, who was elected to the Board in 2020 as a newcomer, announced in January her candidacy for Doral mayor. The move requires her to resign from her District 5School Board seat, which means DeSantis could appoint her replacement. That person could potentially serve until the term ends in 2024. (The governor appoints board members when seats become vacant.)
Fraga, 35, who was vice mayor of Doral before joining the School Board, said she plans to serve through November. Under that scenario, she’d be unable to return to the board, which could open the door for DeSantis to name her successor then.
Fraga said she plans to recommend to DeSantis “people who are active and who care deeply about public education” as replacements for her seat. And while they could hold the same values and principles as DeSantis, she said, it doesn’t mean that person will be in agreement 100% of the time.
“Everyone has an opportunity to be independent [and] we need to give everyone an opportunity to show what they can do,” she said. “But no matter who is elected or appointed, that person needs to listen to what the will of the community is. And we’ve seen that parents are very active in education and are more aware of what is happening in the schoolhouse.”
The board changes are coalescing at the same time Miami-Dade and the state have brought in new educational leaders. In February, Alberto Carvalho, who for the past 14 years led the nation’s fourth-largest school district, left Miami to head Los Angeles public schools. The board hired Jose Dotres, deputy superintendent of Collier County Public Schools and a longtime administrator in Miami-Dade Schools before taking the Collier job, as his successor.
On Friday, the state Board of Education confirmed Manny Diaz Jr., a Republican state senator from Hialeah and champion of charter schools, as the state’s new education commissioner. DeSantis appointed him to the post.
EDUCATION AS A WEDGE ISSUE
The potential change to the board follows a legislative session where Florida Republican lawmakers pushed through a number of highly contentious education bills that garnered national attention, such as the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the “Individual Freedom” bill, commonly referred to as the “Stop Woke Act.” The laws, which DeSantis signed, ban K-3 lesson plans that discuss sexual orientation or gender identity and curtail how race-related issues are taught in public universities, colleges and in workplace training.
DeSantis, eyeing reelection in 2022 and a possible presidential bid in 2024, has made education a key plank in his political strategy.
While Republicans say these bills will protect students and increase parental involvement in the classroom, members of the LBGTQ+ and Black communities and their advocates say the new laws will harm students, teachers and families and disproportionately impact the most vulnerable populations.
“It’s clear the governor wants to have a strong hand in the direction of school boards,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic consultant based in Miami. But “it’s not even about the pandemic anymore. This is really about a radical transformation of how our education system is delivered.”
Alonso, the Miami Dade College trustee who would serve four years on the board if he were elected to the District 4 seat, did not respond to requests from the Herald for comment.
Increasing the number of DeSantis allies on the board has a double-barreled purpose, Ulvert said: It sends a clear message to other board members who may belong to the same party and minimizes opposition to an agenda.
If the governor, or anyone else in power, wants to tamp down those who are against their education agenda, Ulvert said, the best way would be to inject themselves into an entity that often produces the most opposition: school boards, which are nonpartisan governmental entities funded largely by local property taxes.
“The greatest strength of a school board is that they’re seen as independent bodies that have a clear mission and purpose in society [and] free of partisan influence,” he said. “This governor is turning that on its head.”
CONCERNS ABOUT INFLUENCE IN THE CLASSROOM
For Daniella Pierre, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Miami Chapter, the governor’s actions are concerning, especially in light of him signing HB 7 last month at Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, which restricts how Florida colleges and universities can teach Black history, and other recent bills that restrict K-12 classroom instruction.
Pierre questioned whether the community should “trust his judgment to appoint a human being who will act on behalf of our children and parents.”
Adding two DeSantis allies on the board, she said, “would likely revert us back to the times before the passage of Brown vs. the Board of Education,” the landmark 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision that ruled racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
Marvin Dunn, a historian and professor emeritus in psychology at Florida International University, shared similar concerns as Pierre, saying the possibility of having multiple DeSantis allies on the board “scares me to death.”
Dunn, who penned a recent op-ed in the Miami Herald asking DeSantis to specify what he could and could not teach to his students about race, criticized the state for being “omnipresent.” The governor, he said, “has put himself in every classroom in Florida.”
CHANGES IN THE DISTRICT
Hantman’s announcement is the latest in a series of changes for the district, which has more than 330,000 students and more than 17,000 teachers. Miami-Dade is the state’s largest school district. Hantman declined to answer questions Monday from the Herald about how her decision not to seek reelection could impact the board.
Hantman was closely allied to Carvalho, who stood up to Tallahassee when he was superintendent.
Last August, after DeSantis issued an executive order in July banning mask mandates in the state’s public schools, Carvalho and the School Board defied the governor, one of several school districts around the state, including Broward, that did so.
At the time, new COVID-19 cases statewide were setting records, topping more than 20,000 a day due to the deadly delta variant.
In a 7-1 vote, the board backed Carvalho’s recommendation to require students, teachers, staff and school visitors to wear masks when school began last August. Board member Lubby Navarro, who was appointed by former Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 before winning elections in 2016 and 2020, voted against requiring masks. Fraga was absent.
“For the consequences associated with doing the right thing, whatever that right thing is, I will wear proudly as a badge of honor,” Carvalho told the state education board last August during a meeting at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus before the School Board vote. “I’m going to leave here today and go to my own School Board meeting and I’m going to do that, which is right, rightfully righteous.”
Navarro declined to answer questions from the Herald for this article.
Before Dotres’ tenure began, some were apprehensive he would not take the tough stands that Carvalho had. Some board members were also worried about his enrollment in DROP, the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). Dotres is 60 and his enrollment in DROP is up in two years, which is when he would be eligible to retire.
In addition, longtime district staffers have left after Carvalho’s departure. Jaime Torrens, the district’s deputy superintendent, resigned in February to work with Carvalho in L.A. The district’s top communications staffer, Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, also resigned after Carvalho announced he was leaving.
When he was named superintendent, Dotres acknowledged the community’s concerns, but said his “greatest desire is that we work closely together for the benefit of this entire school district.”
“I think this is definitely a moment of change,” Fraga said. “I’m so grateful for the years of service for [Chair] Hantman. But I’m also a huge proponent of term limits and welcoming new leadership in all levels of government. I’m very excited for what this can do for our communities and for that district.”
PRAYER PROCLAMATION IN SCHOOL
At a School Board meeting last month, Fraga introduced a resolution calling on the Board to recognize Thursday, May 5, 2022, as a National Day of Prayer within the schools, in accordance with Congress designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer.
During that discussion, which had people speaking for hours, Navarro, from the dais, claimed there was just one creator, and that was “God and Jesus Christ.”
The comments upset many, including Carrie Feit, a parent of two in the district, lawyer and community advocate. Feit, who is Jewish, said after the meeting that she appreciated the discussion of faith and unity from the board, but hearing a member evoke Jesus’ name, “felt like all of a sudden, you’re not in the room; you’re invisible.”
Throughout the discussion, Dotres remained quiet. The board passed the measure in a 9-0 vote.
For United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats, the state’s new education laws further underscore the need to choose board members who will stand up for public education. Hantman’s successor, in particular, she said, must be someone who is committed to public education: “I want her legacy to last.”
Three other board members are slated to run for reelection this year: Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall (District 2); Mari Tere Rojas (District 6); and Marta Pérez (District 8). Neither Rojas nor Pérez have challengers as of this date, according to election records. La-Shanda West, the iPrep Academy leader at Cutler Bay Senior High, is running against Bendross-Mindingall.
Neither Bendross-Mindigall, Rojas or Pérez responded to the Herald’s request for comment.
There is a primary on Aug. 23 and the general election is Nov. 8.