A former Miami-Dade school district employee and a young attorney are battling for an open seat on the Miami-Dade School Board.
The winner will help chart the board’s policy and juggle the diverse needs of District 5, which includes Allapattah, Doral, part of Hialeah and reaches Krome Avenue to the west.
The candidates in the Aug. 14 primary: Susie Castillo, 52, a former administrative assistant and current assistant to the mayor of Doral; and Dan Espino, 29, a former Miami Springs City Council member and lawyer.
The candidates agree on a lot of major issues: the need to fund $2 billion in deferred maintenance in schools; the need to integrate technology into the classroom; a push for more partnerships between the district and local businesses; and a concern that students are spending too much time on preparing for and taking tests.
And both say the race boils down to experience.
Castillo started as the principal’s secretary at Mae Walters Elementary School in Hialeah, where her mother once taught. She later worked as an administrative assistant in a district regional office and the superintendent’s office and as an aide to a former board member, Frank Bolaños. For the past eight years, she has worked for Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez.
Castillo received a bachelor’s degree from Barry University and is the single mother of two children, one in college, the other a rising senior. She said her experience as a parent and constituent will help her as a board member. “I know what a huge impact a parent has on policy,” she said.
Espino dived into public service early on. Still in college, he served on municipal boards and, at 26, was the youngest person elected to the Miami Springs City Council. Espino, an attorney at Kravitz and Talamo, also serves on the board of directors of his alma mater, Monsignor Edward Pace High School, and on an advisory committee for Miami Dade College’s School of Education.
Espino holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and a law degree from Nova Southeastern University.
“I bring together a critical set of skills and experiences,” Espino said, citing his tenure as a city councilman and work in the community. “The scales are different but they’re the same problems.”
It’s the only competitive race for the School Board. The current District 5 board member, Renier Diaz de la Portilla, is not seeking reelection; he is running for higher office and has not endorsed either candidate. There were several other seats that were set for elections. None of the incumbents faced any opposition and will be elected by default: Carlos Curbelo, Larry Feldman, Wilbert “Tee” Holloway and Martin Karp.
Castillo has so far raised more money for her campaign, $39,305 — compared to $29,745 raised by Espino. Among the contributions: Charter Schools USA gave Castillo $250 and John Bush, Jr., son of former Gov. Jeb Bush, gave Espino $200.
Each candidate has garnered support from different groups: Castillo, the support of the mayors of Doral and Miami Springs; and Espino, backed by the chairman of the school board, the Hialeah mayor and the United Teachers of Dade.
Bermudez said Castillo helps him with many tasks, including answering phone calls from residents, coordinating with other governmental groups and working on education initiatives such as a financial literacy program. “She’s been very, very involved in constituent services and helping citizens because I couldn’t keep up with it all,” Bermudez said. “She understands very well the concerns the residents have expressed and tries to find a solution.”
UTD President Karen Aronowitz said the union believes that Espino will be a “stronger advocate for our public schools.”
“He understands budgets. He also understands what his obligations are to the system. I think he’ll care deeply about our schools,” she said. The union has given Espino $1,500.
If a runoff is required, the race would be on the November ballot.
The new School Board member will be paid $38,500 a year for a four-year term.
Castillo said the biggest challenges are retaining teachers and students. Castillo offered some ideas, such as expanding merit pay to reach more teachers in electives like P.E. and music; online courses to attract students; and more training for teachers to combat bullying.
“I don’t have all the solutions … but we need to help our teachers help our kids,” she said.
Espino said that the biggest challenges are the budget, technology upgrades and making sure students acquire job skills. “There’s no silver bullet. It’s going to require flexibility.”