School Board races heating up in Miami-Dade

Miami-Dade School Board building on Wednesday, July 13, 2016.
Miami-Dade School Board building on Wednesday, July 13, 2016.

Early voting has begun for the Miami-Dade School Board elections, and so has the mudslinging.

In District 6, the seat vacated by county mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, an allegation of Communist sympathizing has been raised, always a hot button to push in Miami. And in District 1, home to a number of struggling schools, incumbent Wilbert “Tee” Holloway and challenger Steve Gallon III have accused each other of poor leadership and mismanagement of taxpayer money.

“This is better than Hillary and Trump!” the moderator at a political forum quipped last week as he introduced two of the men vying to represent Miami Gardens, Carol City and North Miami.

Holloway told voters that Gallon has lied about his controversial tenure as a superintendent in New Jersey, where he was arrested in 2010 over charges of using a false address to enroll two young students in school. Gallon defended himself, saying the children were his godsons and that they were living with him for two months while attending school, but Holloway argued that the allegations were more serious.

Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, left, and Steve Gallon III are running for the District 1 seat on the Miami-Dade County school board.

He accused his opponent of “taking money from the school system in New Jersey” — referring to other allegations that Gallon had hired unqualified staff from Miami to work for the Plainfield school district in central New Jersey.

Gallon said he and his staff did “a tremendous job” in New Jersey, where he created new schools and a professional development program, along with programs for special needs students. If elected, he told the Herald he plans to advocate for a more equitable distribution of school resources and for higher pay and more support for teachers, among other issues.

Although records show the criminal case against him was dropped, it came after Gallon agreed not to work in New Jersey’s public school system again. In South Florida, he’s also been criticized for his work with three charter schools plagued by financial problems, but was ultimately found not to have committed any ethics violations.

But at an earlier candidate forum in Miami Gardens, Holloway’s own record as chairman of the James E. Scott Community Association (JESCA) came under the microscope. The nonprofit used to provide educational and support services for children, at-risk youth and the elderly in some of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.

JESCA was one of the largest social service agencies in the southeastern United States before it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, a downfall Holloway blamed on the vice chairman, Larry Handfield. Holloway told the Miami Herald he was “there in name only primarily” between 2000 and 2007, while he was serving as a state representative in Tallahassee. He said he only attended board meetings when he was home in Miami about four months out of the year.

According to a report from the Miami-Dade County Office of the Inspector General, however, it was Handfield who had alerted the county to the mismanagement of JESCA’s funds. While Holloway served as JESCA’s chairman, the organization used federal and county funds earmarked for social programs to pay for administrative salaries and other operational costs, according to the Inspector General’s report. Meanwhile, JESCA’s president, then Miami-Dade Commissioner Dorrin D. Rolle, was earning close to $200,000 a year, according to tax returns.

JESCA’s demise did not involve any allegations of criminal wrongdoing, but it did represent a blow to an already vulnerable community, said Handfield. “It was a loss of services that were very, very essential and important to the inner-city community,” he said.

Holloway, who was appointed to the School Board in 2007, said he has championed many efforts — working to improve graduation rates in the district, open new schools, increase School Board contracts with minority-owned companies and reform the district’s suspension policy.

The third candidate in District 1, former state representative James Bush III, did not attend a Thursday political forum and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Herald. Questions have been raised about whether Bush lives in the district he hopes to represent, which is one of the requirements for School Board candidates under Florida law.

District 6

In District 6, where Raquel Regalado resigned to run for mayor, the hottest issue has nothing to do with schools and everything to do with the touchy politics of American relations with Cuba.

Modesto “Mo” Abety, the former president of The Children’s Trust and a White House appointee to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, has found himself having to dismiss a charge that he belongs to the communist Cuban Antonio Maceo Brigade.

The accusation was published on a blog that has endorsed his opponent, Maria Teresa “Mari Tere” Rojas.

From left: Modesto "Mo" Abety, Maria Teresa "Mari Tere" Rojas, Gus Machado and Pedro Mora are running for the District 6 seat on the Miami-Dade County school board.

Abety, who is Cuban American, said the allegations stem from his decision to visit Cuba decades ago in order to meet his half-siblings. Abety said the only way to travel to the island at that time was with groups like the Antonio Maceo Brigade. He said he never became a member and does not support the Castro regime — only the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“I felt that as an American citizen I should be able to see where my parents were born and visit. I had a brother and a sister I had never met and I wanted to meet them,” he said. “Being accused of being a communist is like being accused of being a dinosaur in 2016.”

Rojas is a former teacher, principal and administrator who worked in Miami-Dade public schools for close to 40 years. She denied cooking up the blog post, telling the Herald she first became aware of it when someone sent her a link.

Rojas, sister-in-law of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, saw her campaign face scrutiny in July after the mayor’s son, Carlos J. Gimenez, and one of his co-workers tried to persuade three candidates to leave the School Board race and endorse Rojas.

Abety has also raised questions about a possible conflict between Rojas’ previous work as a charter schools supervisor at Lincoln Marti Management Corporation and grant applications for county funding filed by programs at Lincoln Marti schools.

An ethics inquiry into the matter was conducted in 2012 and found no violations because the county ethics code does not include “sister-in-law” under the definition of “immediate family” prohibited from doing business with the county. Emails also indicated that Rojas did not directly oversee the educational programs that had applied for county funds.

In an email, Rojas told the Miami Herald that she plans to work for increased school safety and more emphasis on school counselors to help identify and mentor at-risk youth, along with expanding special needs and early childhood education programs, among other issues.

Abety told the Herald he plans to continue advocating for early childhood education programs for Miami-Dade’s youngest residents. He also believes in limiting the amount of high-stakes standardized testing, expanding recess time, and improving teacher pay and support.

Also in the race to represent District 6, which includes Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and South Miami, are Pedro Mora and Gus Machado.

Machado, a corporate travel salesman, and Mora, a security consultant, both want to see an increase in teacher pay and an increased police presence at schools. Both men also worked as teachers in Miami-Dade for several years before entering the private sector. Mora plans to advocate for additional schools in the district if elected, while Machado plans to focus on improving services for special needs students.

District 7

Lubby Navarro, left, and Aster Bato Mohamed are running for the District 7 seat on the Miami-Dade County school board.

The campaign in District 7, which includes parts of Kendall, South Miami Heights and Homestead, has been comparatively calm. Incumbent Lubby Navarro, the former executive director of intergovernmental affairs for the school district, was appointed to the board in 2015 by Gov. Rick Scott. She has advocated for continuous enrollment in magnet programs and for a new maritime-technology education program. She plans to continue working on increased parental participation in schools and raising teacher salaries.

Her challenger, Aster Bato Mohamed, was a teacher for 17 years and also worked in district administration on parental-engagement initiatives. She said she would focus on increasing parental involvement, as well as on improving services for special needs students and lobbying Tallahassee to change how standardized tests are created and implemented.

Early voting started Aug. 15 and continues until Aug. 28. Elections are on Aug. 30.