Some Miami-Dade teachers say speaking out comes at a price

Steve New, a math teacher at William Turner Technical High School, complained about class sizes at a recent Miami-Dade school board meeting. He feel the district later tried to intimidate him for speaking publicly on the issue - a complaint echoed by some other teachers.
Steve New, a math teacher at William Turner Technical High School, complained about class sizes at a recent Miami-Dade school board meeting. He feel the district later tried to intimidate him for speaking publicly on the issue - a complaint echoed by some other teachers. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Not long after speaking up at a school board meeting about overcrowded classes, high school teacher Richard Ocampo says he has gone from earning top marks on performance reviews to possibly losing his job.

Ocampo sees his treatment as a message from school district management: If you rock the boat, you might get tossed overboard.

“It all really started after I spoke at the school board meeting,” said Ocampo, a social studies teacher at North Miami Senior High. “I guess they don’t like teachers like us.”

He and other teachers, who form a small but vocal core of internal critics, say district leadership routinely discourages public dissent. The disenchantment is strong enough that emails circulated at the beginning of April calling for teachers to protest at Wednesday’s Miami-Dade school board meeting.

Teachers and parents say some of the district’s tactics can be subtle. To speak at board meetings, for example, the district asks people to sign up days in advance and list their topic. Those who do usually get a call from the district ahead of time. Some describe the calls as an attempt to talk speakers out of airing complaints as cameras roll.

Other teachers also have reported what they view as pressure from higher ups, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, after speaking up.

District leaders counter that they are simply trying to solve problems or follow up on them — an approach they contend has helped improve Miami-Dade’s academic standing and reputation.

Carvalho said the advance calls are simply to keep the board properly informed. “It’s been done in the system for many years for no other purpose than being proactive, understanding what the issues may be,’’ he said.

It’s uncertain whether the call for a teacher protest will draw a crowd. District spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego characterized some of the most vocal critics as teachers who “complain about everything.”

Of the largest government bodies in Miami-Dade, the school board is the only one that asks people to sign up well before a public meeting. The district also does allow people to appear at the last minute — after a board vote of approval.

Bob Jarvis, a government law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said there can be sound reasons for the practice.

“You have limited time,’’ he said. “You want to make sure that you’re getting a diversity of views.”

The district defends its approach of calling parents, teachers and anyone else who wants to speak in public.

“I never discourage a parent or anyone from speaking before the board,” said Chief Operations Officer Valtena Brown. “What we will ask them to do, many times, is give us an opportunity to get under the problem because sometimes we’re not aware of it.”

Guadalupe Gonzalez, a chaplain, planned to complain at a recent meeting about how she and her son were treated by his principal. Shortly after putting her name on the speaker list, Gonzalez said she got a call from Central Region Superintendent Albert Payne.

Gonzalez said she was relieved and pleased. “He said he would look into it and take care of it. I was able to resolve the issue.”

But others say the image-conscious district takes the calls too far.

“They call you and they try to convince you not to go, and they give you stupid stories,” said Maria Vapor, a mom who had signed up to speak at the March meeting to ask why a popular reading teacher wasn’t reassigned to her son’s high school. Vapor says she got calls meant more to pacify her than solve the problem.

Ben Wilcox, research director of the government watchdog Integrity Florida, said handling issues behind the scenes can be “problematic.”

“There’s value in having a public discussion if a teacher or a parent is having a problem with the school system, and letting other people know that they might be experiencing the same kind of problem,” Wilcox said.

Then there’s also a board policy that could be summed up as: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it to my face.” The board prohibits speakers from singling out any board members by name.

Wilcox said he has never heard of such a prohibition.

“You always want to encourage civility in public meetings, but I think when someone holds a public office, they have to be willing to hear from the public and you have to develop a little bit of thick skin,” he said.

Many institutions have policies intended to keep meetings polite and running smoothly. For example, at Miami-Dade County commission meetings, audience members have to wave their hands in the air to show support because clapping isn’t allowed.

Perla Tabares Hantman, who has chaired the school board for many of her 20 years in office, is known for running meetings by the book and for her polite demands for respect. She can cite the district’s decorum policy by memory.

Hantman credits that courteous atmosphere as contributing to Miami-Dade’s many successes, which include a string of national prizes for the district and its superintendent.

“The quality of not just a world class school system, but of any successful organization, is a governing board ... that has a good and respectful relationship,” Hantman said at a recent strategic planning meeting.

Some teachers say that emphasis on respect doesn’t always trickle down.

Nadia Zananiri, a teacher at Miami Beach Senior High, said she was cornered at a school board meeting by the superintendent after complaining about class sizes.

“I was a little shocked that he was so disturbed by anything out of my speech, which I felt was just standing up for teachers and students,” she said.

Carvalho said he interacts with many members of the public during meetings. “I wanted to understand some of the words she used,” Carvalho said. “I didn’t see it as confrontational. Not on my part.”

Teacher Steve New said he got a surprise visit to his classroom from a region superintendent the day after he complained at a school board meeting about the same class-size issues.

“I think it was a direct response to my school board speech because he came in and told me he heard my speech,” New said. “I don’t want them to think that intimidation will prevent me from speaking.”

District leaders said the visit was only meant to address issues the teacher raised.

“Is there something really wrong with going to the school and saying, ‘Hey is there anything you need?’,” said Gonzalez-Diego, the district spokeswoman. “We’re addressing it; we’re leading from the front.”

That’s how David Reese, a teacher at Miami Beach High, felt when Carvalho paid a visit to his classroom after Reese spoke at a board meeting about class size concerns.

“In my mind, that’s what he’s supposed to do,” Reese said. “We were there to talk about the problems with having 30 people in a ninth-grade English class, and he came to a ninth-grade English class with 30 people in it. So it wasn’t, for me, an intimidating visit.”

This article has been updated to correct the name of Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

Also on the Wednesday, the Miami-Dade school board will:

* Cast a preliminary vote on whether to end a lottery system for some schools in Coral Gables. The system, called controlled choice, began as a way to integrate schools.

* Hear a request from parents to expand Henry S. West Laboratory elementary school, commonly known as West Lab, into a center for grades kindergarten through eighth.

* Decide whether to issue a bid for companies to create online and telephone systems that will allow employees to compare health care costs at different providers.

* Consider a proposal to build a new school in Doral.

* Decide whether to explore ways to expand school options in the Brickell area of downtown Miami.

The school board meeting begins at 11 a.m. It takes place in the auditorium of the School Board Administrative building, which is located at 1450 NE Second Ave. in Miami.