Newcomers take on well-funded veterans in Miami-Dade School Board races

08/10/2014 2:43 PM

08/11/2014 2:46 PM

Miami-Dade County’s longest-serving School Board members face challenges by a pair of political newcomers in the Aug. 26 election.

Perla Tabares Hantman, on the board 18 years, is up against Hialeah-Miami Lakes High English teacher Duysevi Miyar for the District 4 seat.

In District 8, Marta Pérez faces her first opponent since she was initally elected in 1998. Adjunct Miami Dade College professor and retired teacher Lawrence Orihuela hopes to unseat the incumbent.

No central issue defines the races, but newcomers paint their opponents as out of touch and say they are running to bring the perspective of educators to the board. The incumbents point to the district’s success — such as landing the Broad Prize, sometimes described as the Nobel Prize of education — and say they want the chance to continue their work.

Candidates have raised almost $340,000 combined, according to the latest campaign finance reports, with the incumbents up by a 10 to 1 margin. Donations from charter school operators, lobbyists and lawyers make up the bulk of the support for Hantman and Pérez.

Pérez, the top fundraiser in the running, said she has contributions from interests on both sides of issues.

“This is part of what campaigning takes. There are things I don’t like about it,” Pérez said.

District 4 runs includes Hialeah and Miami Lakes. Hantman, 73, has represented the area since 1996 — many of those years as the board chairwoman.

As the leader of School Board meetings, Hantman has gained a reputation for polite discourse and urging mutual respect among board members, as well as sticking to procedural rules.

“I have very strict rules but at the same time I allow board members to speak,” she said.

Among her accomplishments, Hantman touts the district’s bilingual education programs — a cause she took up in the 1990s — and her support for student safety initiatives such as National Walk to School Day and teen driving courses.

If reelected, Hantman said she wants to continue to push for changes to the property tax appeals process, which schools officials say makes it hard to draw up budgets.

“It’s a problem the way the tax collection is, and we never know what to predict,” Hantman said.

She said she would also continue to keep close watch over construction projects and technology improvements paid for by a $1.2 billion general obligation bond approved by voters about two years ago.

Hantman has raised about $127,000 — including a $10,000 loan to herself.

Miyar, her opponent, has raised about $16,000, including a $15,000 loan to herself.

Miyar, 46, says better communication with the district and school employees is needed, and wants teachers to have a greater say in decision-making.

“Things are imposed on us,” she said. “The biggest issue is the disconnect.”

Miyar also said she wants to improve the district’s lobbying efforts, get away from standardized testing and make it easier for teachers to refer students to special needs programs.

“My main platform is: One size does not fit all,” she said.

In District 8, Orihuela says he is running a strategic campaign focusing on a far western swath of the county. The area was recently incorporated into the district when the board voted on new boundaries in 2011. The district now stretches from beyond Krome Avenue to about 157th Avenue, and Flagler Street to Bird Road.

“I just go, go, go, until it’s dark or I’m drenched,” said Orihuela, 66.

With only $12,000 in his campaign war chest, Orihuela faces the most-well-financed candidate in the running. Pérez has raised $182,000 — including a loan to herself for $100,000 — according to her most-recent campaign finance reports.

Pérez, 63, has been on the School Board 16 years. In that time, she has championed ethics reforms and the creation of an inspector general office.

Often on the losing side of 8-1 votes, Pérez displays in her office a drawing by Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald cartoonist Jim Morin. It depicts the long-time board member banging her head against an outside wall of the School Board building.

“People think of me as outspoken,” Pérez said.

She highlights her advocacy for a science, technology and math program recently launched at G. Holmes Braddock High. If reelected, Pérez said she wants to establish niche educational programs at under-enrolled schools in her district that she hopes will be prestigious enough to encourage parents and students to commute there.

And, since District 8 is far from the geographical and political centers of Miami-Dade, Pérez said she will continue to fight for recognition and unique programing at schools on the county’s western fringes.

Orihuela said his decades spent in classrooms make him more qualified for the job. He said the district needs to focus on implementing curriculum that focus on problem solving, interpersonal and critical thinking skills.

“The business people in this country — Bill Gates, the job creators, the entrepreneurs — they’re desperately looking to us, teachers, to teach critical thinking,” Orihuela said.

He said he would partner with local universities and organizations to beef up staff and provide more services for teachers.

“You have to find the money. You have to find the resources,” Orihuela said. “The teachers who are in the classrooms — we have to help them.”

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