WLRN | By Kate Payne, Gerard Albert III | November 22, 2022
There are three new allies of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on the Miami-Dade County School Board. In Broward County, a majority of the school board is once again elected — not appointed — after new members were sworn in. But one newly-elected candidate could not be officially appointed because of questions over his eligibility.
WLRN reporters Kate Payne and Gerard Albert III look at the key developments of a consequential day for two South Florida school boards.
New Board Members Roberto Alonso, Monica Colucci and Daniel Espino were formally sworn in on Tuesday and are expected to usher in a new wave of conservative politics on the board overseeing the state’s largest school district.
Alonso and Colucci ran their campaigns as supporters of “parental rights”, a movement which has largely focused on restricting how race and identity are taught, targeting curriculum deemed “inappropriate” and opposing LGBTQ issues.
Espino was appointed by DeSantis to fill the seat of Board Member Christi Fraga, who resigned in order to run for Mayor of Doral. The timing of Fraga’s resignation ensured DeSantis was able to appoint a replacement, rather than leave the seat open for a special election.
It was a full house at the Miami-Dade County School Board auditorium on Tuesday morning, for the swearing in of the new board members and for the renewal of the vows of current members.
There was not the same overtly-Christian tenor as during the unofficial ceremony held the week before for Alonso and Colucci, during which a Catholic priest blessed the incoming members and urged the audience to trust in God and “his prophets”.
On Tuesday, there was no benediction from a religious leader; instead, the audience observed a moment of silent reflection.
New board elects Mari Tere Rojas as chair, Lubby Navarro as vice chair
In their first official actions, the new members helped choose the board’s leadership team for the coming year. Mari Tere Rojas was chosen as the next chair in a unanimous 9-0 vote. She’ll succeed longtime Chair Perla Tabares Hantman, who opted to retire this year after 26 years on the board, rather than face a challenge from her right in Alonso.
Asked how DeSantis’ influence might play out on the board, Rojas said she’s focused on students.
“I can tell you that I will make decisions based on what I feel is in the best interests of those that I serve — especially our children,” Rojas said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that the other eight board members that are here — everybody has children’s best interests in mind.”
Lubby Navarro nominated Rojas; no one else was nominated to serve as chair.
Navarro was elected vice chair in a 5 to 4 vote, with the five conservative-leaning members supporting her and the four liberal-leaning members voting for Steve Gallon, who had served as vice chair for three years.
Rojas is seen as a possible swing vote on the board. She was challenged on the right in this year’s election, but her opponent did not draw the same fundraising firepower as Alonso and Colucci, who ousted longtime Board Member Marta Pérez.
Navarro is seen as more reliably conservative. In April, she drew outrage for stating from the dais that “God and Jesus Christ” are the only God.
New board members say they’ll prioritize ‘parental rights’
After being sworn in on Tuesday, the new members spoke of their Christian faith and their families’ journeys fleeing communist Cuba and pledged to prioritize “parental rights”, at a time when conservative activists are increasingly exerting pressure over district policy.
It was the first time the public got to hear from Danny Espino since DeSantis appointed him to the board late Monday night. A child of Cuban immigrants, Espino was previously elected as a Miami Springs City Council Member and has served as a city attorney for various municipalities in Miami-Dade County. Espino is also the father of four young boys, who stood alongside him as he took the oath of office.
Speaking to reporters, he argued that students today are “over-sexualized” and said he looks forward to upholding a new state law that limits how gender identity and sexual orientation can be talked about in the classroom.
“It’s never been a more critical time for parents to play a central role in education. And I’m proud to contribute my voice to that,” Espino said.
“The recent election cycle has raised the level of debate about education. Parents are activated. Let’s use that engagement to fuel our resolve and drive positive change that will serve as a model for the nation.”
Colucci gave a pared back version of a speech she made last week, when she pledged, “when it comes to children, you have my pledge to never compromise … I will never settle for being politically correct — but rather morally correct“. On Tuesday, she promised to work with the rest of the board.
“Together on this board, we will never compromise and give anything less than our best to our students,” she said. “We will always work to protect their hearts, minds and spirits.”
Only one member of the public opted to speak at Tuesday’s meeting — Mina Hosseini, the executive director of local education advocacy group PS 305. As a child of Iranian parents who grew up in a Muslim household — and as a product of MDCPS — she urged the board to respect the district’s diversity and prioritize the wellbeing of all children.
“I just asked that you all remember the minority of students that are in the school district and that you serve all students with the same type of integrity that students like yourself, your children and I deserve,” Hosseini said.
The Broward County school board looks different after Tuesday’s swearing in ceremony.
Four members, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis are out — replaced by three elected members. The fourth new member, Rod Velez, won his election but was not sworn in Tuesday because of uncertainty about whether he can legally hold office.
Velez has a previous felony conviction and although he can vote thanks to Amendment 4, whether or not he can hold office is still unclear. “The state has everything they need to hit the button and process everything,” he said minutes before the ceremony Tuesday morning.
The application is an extra step that returning citizens need to take in order to hold public office. It is unclear when Velez filed the application, or if he did. As of Tuesday morning, the state’s database doesn’t show a record of his rights restored. But the database only shows approved records, not pending cases.
Lawyers representing Velez, Nellie King and Michael Gottlieb, did not return requests for comment on Velez’s eligibility. Velez looked on from the audience as the other school board members sat on stage.
Lori Alhadeff becomes the new chair
Lori Alhadeff was reelected this year after serving on the school board since 2018. She ran for the office after her daughter Alyssa died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting.
“People asked me, ‘Do you think you’re making a difference?’ Absolutely…. They may be small wins, but that’s what keeps me going,” Alhadeff said during the swearing in ceremony.
Board members voted on a new chair in a meeting after the ceremony. Debbi Hixon, who lost her husband Christopher in the shooting, nominated Alhadeff — who won six out of eight votes.
New member Brenda Fam nominated DeSantis-appointee and former chair Torey Alston. Alston and Fam were the two no votes on Alhadeff. Hixon was voted as vice chair unanimously.
“I believe we are the new school board that can set a new path forward to bring leadership, integrity, healing, stabilization, and respect back to this board,” Alhadeff said.
“Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of work to do. And I know we might not always agree on items, but I know we’re all here with our hearts and our minds laser focused on the success of our students,”
‘Parental rights’ get a nod
Like the DeSantis allies in the Miami-Dade board, Fam, a lawyer from Davie, is also a supporter of “parental rights”. She gave parents and supporters a nod during her swearing in ceremony.
“Your voice has not been heard for the last few years, and we have to change that,” said Fam. “Your children are your future. They’re your legacy. And you have every right to participate and have a say in what happens to them.”
Allen Zeman beat out Donna Korn, a former board member who was suspended by Gov. DeSantis after being found to be ‘negligent’ in her duties by a Grand Jury report commissioned after Parkland shooting.
“We are at risk as an independent school system, and we must act accordingly. We don’t have time for drama and intrigue, ethical lapses or misplaced priorities. We have to focus on tangible measurable progress that our students in our schools and in our community deserves,” Zeman said.
The board got right to work Tuesday afternoon, holding a meeting that lasted past 5 p.m. In the public comment session Velez, who was seated behind county administration and in front of the public, spoke.
“I look forward to being on the dais soon,” he said. “I have two kids in the public school system. I have skin in this game. Regardless of whatever happens to me, I’m still going to be around. You’re not going to get rid of me. My voice will be heard.”