Miami-Dade school board declines to take up school voucher discussion

What promised to be a long, contentious debate over school choice fizzled with barely a mention at the Miami-Dade School board meeting on Wednesday.

Board members decided 7-2 not to hear the issue over procedural concerns.

Board member Carlos Curbelo had asked the board to take a symbolic stance against a lawsuit attacking Florida’s school voucher program.

“I was hoping that we could have a healthy discussion,’’ he told the Miami Herald. “When public discussion is suppressed, everyone loses.”

The program provides scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. It’s funded by donations from businesses that get matching tax credits for their contributions.

In August, the statewide teachers union, school boards association, PTA and others filed suit over the program. They claim it’s unconstitutional because it sucks resources out of public schools and diverts them to religious schools.

Curbelo’s proposal was tabled because he didn’t ask for an opinion from the school board attorney first. Board policy requires such input before the district takes part in legal action.

Curbelo said he changed the language of his proposal so that it wouldn’t be in conflict with the board policy. Still, it wasn’t heard. Board member Martin Karp joined Curbelo in support of discussing the issue.

“There were clearly interests that did not want a public debate on this issue,” Curbelo said.

But board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman said the board was just following the advice of its attorney, who wrote a memo stating that procedure hadn’t been followed.

“We have a long history at the school district, and me myself, of being a district of parental choice. But we have to have rules,” Hantman said.

About 100 speakers had signed up to address both sides of the issue, but none was heard.

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig, who is affiliated with a religious elementary school that receives scholarships through the voucher program, was stunned the proposal didn’t move forward.

“This is about letting parents to decide where to send their kids,” he said.

Countered Fedrick Ingram, president of United Teachers of Dade: “In terms of the protocol, I think it was fine ... and we thought we would prevail in the vote.”

It’s unclear whether the item will come back to the board. Curbelo won’t be around to propose it again; Wednesday’s meeting is probably his last. He’s headed to Washington, D.C. as a newly-elected congressman.

Also Wednesday, the board agreed with a proposal by Raquel Regalado to ask the board attorney for an opinion regarding joining another lawsuit — this one against county Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

United Teachers of Dade sued the mayor on Friday for underfunding the board that hears property tax appeals. As a result, appeals take years to be heard and the district loses out on money meant for classrooms.

Regalado wants the district to join the legal action. Though she is eying a run against the mayor in 2017, she said her move is not political.

In a text message, Regalado said the district has tried negotiating with the county over the property tax issue, with no success. So joining the suit is “the only remaining option.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said discussions would continue.

“This has been a long journey and a disappointing journey,” he said.

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