Education

Lawmakers demand apology from MDC's president Eduardo Padrón

A day after Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón ignited a war of words by blasting four local lawmakers, the other side fired back.

In a sign of growing backlash, the response wasn’t limited to the targets Padrón initially criticized for opposing a key MDC funding bill. Instead, the four were joined by seven other members of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation in co-signing a letter that called Padrón’s statements “something we cannot and will not tolerate.”

“The kind of uncivilized discourse that emanated from such a respected community leader is something we all are compelled to condemn,” read the joint letter written by Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation chairman, Hialeah Rep. Eduardo “Eddy” Gonzalez.

The lawmakers hoped to have their letter published by the Miami Herald’s editorial board — a response intended to address unusually blunt remarks Padrón made to the paper on Tuesday.

All but one of the co-signers — Hallandale Beach Democrat Joe Gibbons, whose district extends into Miami-Dade — were Republicans.

Seven other House Democrats declined to sign the letter. None of the seven could be reached for comment. The letter was not circulated among Miami-Dade’s state senators.

Miami Dade College officials declined comment Wednesday.

The lawmakers’ four-paragraph letter, released Wednesday evening, demanded that Padrón “immediately” issue a public apology for his comments.

During an editorial board meeting at the Herald’s Doral headquarters, Padrón complained that four influential GOP lawmakers were acting like “bullies” by trying to derail a pending bill that could steer about $1 billion in additional funding to cash-strapped MDC.

The money would come from a five-year, half-penny increase to the local sales tax, which would have to be approved in a voter referendum.

Padrón charged that local lawmakers Frank Artiles, Michael Bileca, Carlos Trujillo and Jose Oliva were working collectively to kill the MDC bill — despite the fact that it would benefit a widely supported college in their home county.

Oliva’s opposition carries particular influence, as the Miami Lakes lawmaker is set to become House speaker in four years. Oliva has said he couldn’t support a tax increase that could hurt Miami-Dade’s still-shaky economy.

In his remarks to the Herald, a clearly frustrated Padrón directed some of his harshest criticism at Oliva, questioning whether Oliva valued the role of higher education, noting that the lawmaker was a “dropout” who never finished college. Padrón also said that Oliva “was born into money” and “has never had to earn a living.”

Oliva, contacted to respond to the comments, took exception to Padrón’s characterizations — saying he had been born of modest means and had shown initiative by starting a business at age 22. The lawmakers’ letter released Wednesday pushed back more pointedly, slamming Padrón for engaging in “vicious personal attacks.”

“To question and accuse someone’s commitment to higher education for our state based to their own college experience is something we cannot and will not tolerate,” the letter states.

The hard feelings between Padrón and some lawmakers had been building long before this week’s showdown.

MDC has been hit by repeated state budget cuts in recent years, and this legislative session marked the fourth time that the college has tried to get a sales-tax referendum bill approved.

Padrón on Tuesday said his college is in financial crisis — unable to expand its programs to meet student demand and struggling to maintain quality as it goes without basic technology such as wifi.

“Without the necessary support, we cannot get the job done,” Padrón said Tuesday. “And that is something that makes my heart cry … I believe very much in what we do.”

Lawmakers, in their letter, indicated that they had gotten the message — but argued that the way it was delivered would do more harm than good.

“We get it,” they wrote. “We know Miami Dade College needs help, and we know they need funding.”

While lawmakers expressed anger at how Padrón targeted them personally, some MDC alums supported their president.

Facebook comments posted to Tuesday’s Herald story included several MDC graduates who praised Padrón for speaking out.

“Those of us who are MDC Alumni need to get involved,” wrote Michael DeCossio. “As a resident of Miami Lakes, I will use my vote to show how I feel about Rep. Jose Oliva in the next elections. I will make sure that others do the same.”

Padrón, who is well-respected nationally, is hardly the first Florida college president to express frustrations with the Legislature.

But because state universities and community colleges must rely on lawmakers for a huge portion of their annual funding, the presidents of those schools tend to complain respectfully and quietly — if at all.

Padrón’s no-punches-pulled comments were enough to garner attention from other corners of the state. Even before Miami-Dade’s delegation had finished drafting its letter, a Republican lawmaker from Melbourne Beach had sent MDC’s trustees his own angry letter.

“I strongly believe that President Eduardo Padrón has lost a great deal of his legitimacy that is necessary to lead Miami Dade College,” Rep. John Tobia wrote. “I encourage you to take swift, decisive, and permanent action in this matter.”

MDC trustee Marili Cancio declined to comment on Padrón specifically. But Cancio said she did support passing the sales tax bill at the heart of the dispute, which would allow for a voter referendum.

“I am very supportive of the people having the right to vote, it is the people’s decision to make,” she said. “The college is in need of funds, and it’s up to the community to decide.”

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