School Board incumbents raise $250K while facing little to no opposition

During the last weekend in May, contractors, lobbyists, charter-school operators and attorneys were among the dozens who cut checks to the campaigns of three Miami-Dade School Board members.

The May 30 flurry reaped a combined $14,000, representing one of the single most successful days of school board fundraising in the spring election season. And yet, while incumbents Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, Raquel Regalado and Perla Tabares Hantman all faced reelection, none at that point actually faced a challenger.

When the deadline to run for school board passed three weeks later, only Hantman and a fourth incumbent, Marta Pérez, had drawn an opponent — neither of whom has any political experience.

Despite the lack of opposition, campaign records show board members raised a combined quarter of a million dollars in campaign donations before drawing a single challenger. Many contributions were of the $500 and $1,000 variety, and some of the biggest donors have business with the board:

• Demetrio Pérez, Jr.: The former Dade school board member gave $9,000 to board members’ campaigns. He founded the popular Lincoln-Martí charter-school chain, which receives public funds through its charter contracts with the district.

• Munilla Construction Management: Miami-based builder MCM gave $7,000. The company has been hired by the school board in the past on major projects, including the recent renovation of historic Miami Senior High.

• Herman Echevarria: The well-known lobbyist gave $6,500. School board records don’t show him representing any clients during the past year.

• Ron Book: The prominent lobbyist represents the school board in Tallahassee and contributed $6,000 to incumbents.

To be clear, the amounts contributed by individuals and companies in school board elections pale in comparison to the money given to, say, county commissioners. And the school board’s conflict of interest policy — like the state’s — doesn’t consider campaign contributions to be gifts.

But critics often pounce on favorable votes involving campaign donors. Democrats, for instance, tried to make an issue last week of school board member and Republican congressional candidate Carlos Curbelo’s votes for business involving donors to his 2010 campaign, including MCM.

Of course, while MCM has been awarded major contracts by the school board in recent years, they’ve also been passed over. The company, for instance, contributed $50,000 to the committee backing the district’s bond referendum but lost out a year ago on an $18 million MAST Academy construction contract that was awarded to Pirtle Construction.

Votes on charter school contracts, meanwhile, are often perfunctory.

Regalado, who raised about $130,000 through her campaign and an electioneering committee she shares with her father, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, accepted checks from MCM, Book and Pérez, among others. But she said she tries to raise funds from people who don’t do business with the board.

“I don’t necessarily think it creates a conflict. A lot of [board] decisions are unanimous,” she said. “Still, it does send a bad message.”

Bendross-Mindingall, who believes she will donate what is left of her $50,000 war chest to nonprofits, said she fundraised because she couldn’t have predicted going unopposed. She said she only does “what is right for the children of Dade County Public Schools.”

“I don’t favor anyone for donating to my campaign,” she said.

Hantman’s opponent, teacher Duysevi Miyar, questioned incumbents’ receipt of thousands from charter-school operators. But the board chairwoman and longest-serving member brushed aside questions of favoritism.

“Nobody has ever asked me as to why I accept a contribution from somebody,” Hantman said. “That may happen with other people. It may happen with other governmental entities. But it’s never happened with me.”

Pérez did little fundraising until drawing an opponent, retired teacher Lawrence Orihuela, and has raised less money than the other incumbents.

Regalado, on the other hand, was more active in fundraising and campaigning than any incumbent, spending $30,000 on radio spots and thousands more on phone banks and a social media campaign run by her brother, Jose Regalado. Some of her largest contributors were Jeff Berkowitz, the developer behind Skyrise Miami, and developer Terra Group.

“Jeff has nothing to do with the school board,” said Regalado. “It’s one of those things, where if you raise money from people who do business with the school board they tell you shouldn’t do that. And if you raise money from people who have nothing to do with the school board, people wonder why.”

The Herald’s list of the biggest schools board contributors was created by checking donors and addresses with Florida corporation records. Donations from individuals, family members and subsidiaries were grouped under the same name.