Miami-Dade School Board votes down transportation outsourcing study, upholds firing of party teacher

Amid protests from hundreds of bus drivers and aides, the Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday voted down a controversial proposed transportation outsourcing study.

Board members voted 8 to 1 against the proposal from Carlos Curbelo, who stressed that he was only asking for a study, of which the results weren’t predetermined. But his colleagues said the district already knows its transportation costs — down to $69 million from about $83 million three years ago — are by comparison less than Duval County’s privatized services.

Most board members voiced hesitation about investigating privatization in other districts, and conducting a valuation of the district’s 1,300-bus fleet.

“We know it’s Halloween season. To me this item came in a costume,” Board Member Wilbert T. Holloway said to cheers from transportation employees.

Curbelo’s proposal, which also looked to gauge private sector interest in providing busing services, drew a visceral reaction from drivers and bus aides. It made for a lively meeting, which also included a hearing for a fired teacher accused of buying her students alcohol and condoms for a prom after-party.

Curbelo, however, said anger over his proposal was created by misinformation and politics. Among those opposing the item: Congressman Joe Garcia. Staff read a statement from him arguing that privatization would only increase costs for the district.

Curbelo, a Republican, is running against Garcia, a Democrat.

“Beyond its potential fiscal costs, privatization in Dade County could hurt the 1,700 hardworking bus drivers and aides currently employed by the district,” Garcia wrote.

Curbelo responded: “If anyone had any doubt as to whether anyone was trying to politicize this item, there it is. But I’m glad that for the first time the congressman has decided to weigh in and care about our school district. Up until now, we hadn’t heard from him.”

In other action Wednesday, the school board upheld the firing of a dance teacher who rented a penthouse hotel suite for South Miami Senior High students and was accused of giving them condoms and alcohol for a prom after-party.

An administrative law judge recommended this summer that Isabel Diaz-Almaraz, whom the school board fired in September 2012, be reinstated after a year-long suspension without pay. But board members sided with Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who said the three-year teacher should stay fired.

“This is not a career-ending mistake,” argued Mark Herdman, Diaz-Almaraz’s attorney.

Diaz-Almaraz came under investigation by the district in 2012 after parents grew concerned about her behavior with students. That summer, Diaz-Almaraz used her PayPal account to rent a penthouse suite for about 15 students the weekend of prom at a cost of more than $1,000. She took half a sick-day the Friday before prom to help the students get the suite ready and returned the next day with her husband to cook steaks in the oven and spend time with the teens, according to documents from her appeal of her firing.

According to Administrative Judge F. Scott Boyd, she helped one student prepare a “gift display with rose petals and mints for his girlfriend,” and left the students gifts like sunscreen, mouthwash, toothpaste, freeze pops and Gatorade. She denied giving them alcohol and condoms — items included in an Instagram picture posted by a student with the caption, “Thank you Mrs. D!!!”

Diaz-Almaraz said she only rented the hotel because it had to be done on PayPal, and the students didn’t have an account. They were worried about losing the room and gave her the money, her attorney said.

She also said she never saw alcohol or students drinking in the suite, and Boyd and Herdman said she didn’t deserve to be fired.

“Being at the room is not something she should have done,’’ said Herdman. “She acknowledged that. She took responsibility for it.”

Carvalho, however, said the school board made the right call.

“It’s the right decision, albeit a difficult decision,” he said. “Today we protect kids, and that’s what we’re charged with doing.”