For all the uproar over school security and education funding out of Tallahassee, it has been a quieter race for school board seats in the fourth-largest school district in the country.
Four Miami-Dade County School Board seats out of nine are up for election this year, but two incumbents were automatically reelected in June when no challengers filed to run by the deadline. That leaves two incumbents facing off with one opponent each — races that will be decided in the August 28 primary.
District 2 envelopes the heart of Miami, encompassing the neighborhoods of Overtown, Wynwood, Morningside, El Portal, Liberty City, Brownsville, Biscayne Park, and Miami Shores. It’s also home to perennially struggling schools and bleeding enrollment.
Incumbent Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who has been on the board since 2010, points to the school district’s historic designation of an A grade and two years of no “F” schools in the district as proof of improvement.
“I have more to do, so I want to continue this journey,” said Mindingall, 76, a former principal and state legislator. “Some of those children now, we have an 84 percent graduation rate, that’s not enough. And we want to do whatever we can to move that.”
But her opponent, Brandon Alfred, a 28-year-old dean of culture and student services at Jose de Diego Middle School in Wynwood, says there’s a lot more to be done to truly help students beyond school grades. He says his former students return from college worried they were unprepared for higher education.
“For me, public education always has been, always will be the number one way to level the playing field in this country,” he said at a recent candidate forum. “I feel right now ... we are not providing all of our students with equal access to achieving dreams.”
Both candidates have raised a fair share of cash. Bendross-Mindingall out-raised and out-spent Alfred, raising $88,000 in contributions and spending $68,000 of it on consulting and marketing materials. Alfred raised $37,000 with significant help from backers of Teach for America, a national program that places bright college graduates in inner-city schools. Alfred taught for Teach for America at Miami Central High.
Both candidates support having sworn school resource officers in schools, although Alfred is concerned about their role when it comes to relations with students of color and the frequent use of the Baker Act to discipline students. Both also want to address how the district is steering immigrant students toward a GED program instead of a high-school diploma.
Many of those concerns also spill over into the race for District 4. That district claims the lion’s share of Hialeah and Miami Lakes. Board member Perla Tabares Hantman, the current board chair, is the longest-serving board member after being elected in 1996.
“I’ve decided that I really need to stay another time,” said Hantman, 78. “I think my historic knowledge and the way the board has been functioning and the way things have been done has been productive.”
She is being challenged by first-time candidate Irene Torroella-Garcia, who was a substitute teacher at Meadowlane Elementary in Hialeah for about two years a decade ago. Torroella-Garcia said she has rallied in Tallahassee against legislation that is pro-charter school, against unions, and in favor of arming teachers.
She said she wanted to become a teacher, but the pay was too low. She got her real-estate license and worked as a real-estate appraiser instead.
“We can’t expect things to change in the school system if we keep voting for the same people,” said Torroella-Garcia, 42. “I can’t exactly say she’s done a bad job, I just feel like it’s not enough.”
No one has raised more than Tabares Hantman’s $103,000. Torroella-Garcia has raised $19,000.
The two candidates have never faced off in a candidate forum.
All four candidates are supportive of the property-tax referendum, which is on the November general-election ballot and would mostly supplement teacher salaries while also raising funding for school police officers.