School Board might weigh taking stance on voucher lawsuit

Carlos Curbelo has lobbed a politically charged parting gift at his fellow Miami-Dade County School Board members.

Before the newly elected congressman heads to Washington, D.C., Curbelo wants the board to take a symbolic stance against a lawsuit attacking Florida’s school voucher system. He has proposed an item to be taken up at the regular school board meeting on Wednesday, in all likelihood Curbelo’s last.

“It’s never a bad time to do the right thing. And the board, whether it’s my last meeting or not, should have the courage to at the very least discuss this issue,” Curbelo said.

The program, called the Tax Credit Scholarship, turns traditional allies into enemies.

It is so politically sensitive that it sent board members scrambling for a way not to address it at a committee meeting this week, first asking their attorney whether they could discuss it since Curbelo wasn’t there, and then to opine on procedural issues and whether the proposal conflicts with the district’s voted-on legislative agenda.

One board member even denied submitting an item similar to Curbelo’s, only to admit it later.

Meanwhile, about 80 people are ready to speak on the item, according to a sign-up sheet. Rep. Erik Fresen, who has ties to charter schools, has signed on. So have representatives of Step Up for Students, a pro-voucher group.

Also on the speaker’s list: Florida PTA President Mindy Haas, which is a party to the suit against the state, and leaders from the Dade’s teachers union, which supports the suit.

“We’re going to ask the school board to do what every other local school board in our state has done — to stay out of this statewide lawsuit,” said United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram. Curbelo’s proposal “is against everything this board has said it is for legislatively, and that is to give all dollars possible to public school and public funding.”

Florida’s $358-million voucher program provides scholarships for students to attend private schools. In August, the statewide teachers union, the Florida school boards association and PTA sued the governor over it. They claim the program is unconstitutional because it sucks money out of public schools and goes largely to religious institutions.

Black religious leaders rely on the vouchers to run parochial schools, and most of the scholarship recipients are minorities. But the NAACP is one of the groups suing the state, along with the statewide teachers union. Meanwhile, Republicans like Curbelo tend to support the program, which gives tax credits to businesses that donate money for it.

The dynamics make it especially complicated for black Democrats like the board’s Wilbert “Tee” Holloway. He originally proposed a resolution similar to Curbelo’s, but it was later pulled, public records show.

When a Miami Herald reporter asked about his proposal, Holloway denied submitting it. He later called to say he did.

“I was interested in it based upon fairness, trying to give kids an opportunity. But I knew vouchers were a always a challenge and I just needed more information about it,” he said.

Holloway said Tuesday that he does not “intend to” support Curbelo’s resolution.

John Kirtley, a Tampa businessman and voucher supporter, wrote in an email that he asked Holloway and Curbelo whether they’d bring the measure forward. Kirtley, who heads a political committee that has poured more than $1 million into political races in the last two years, said research shows that students who participate in the scholarship program make learning gains.

“Miami Dade does a better job than any district in the country in creating options, and I frequently publicly commend them for it,” wrote Kirtley, who said he personally donated to Curbelo’s congressional campaign — but before the voucher lawsuit was filed. “I hope that they will agree that this one option, that serves the county’s poorest and poorest performing children, shouldn’t be taken off the table.”

In response to board questioning at a committee meeting, school board attorney Walter Harvey released a memo on Tuesday saying Curbelo’s proposal didn’t follow board rules. According to district policy, items that seek involvement in pending litigation have to be reviewed and approved by the board attorney. That didn’t happen.

The memo goes on to say the item “may conflict” with the board’s voted-on legislative agenda. Members should change or clarify the district’s legislative program before voting to support Curbelo’s item, the memo says.

The school board meeting begins at 11a.m. and meets in the auditorium of the School Board Administration Building, which is located at 1450 Northeast Second Ave. in Miami.

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