If you’re slowly working your way down the 2020 August primary ballot, don’t forget local, nonpartisan down-ballot races that have political, economic and social impact.
The School Board of Miami-Dade County controls a $5 billion budget and oversees 392 schools, 345,000 students and 40,000 employees, the largest workforce in the county. They are in charge of matters beyond education, including overseeing the awarding of contracts to local and minority businesses. Many School Board members go on to higher political office.
Each of its nine members represents a section of Miami-Dade County, and each has an equal vote. Board members serve four-year terms.
This year, four out of nine seats are on the August ballot. Of those, three incumbents have chosen not to run again, drawing several competitive candidates. Those newcomers can change the dynamic of the School Board.
If no one candidate gets 50% plus one vote on Aug. 18, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will be on the November general election ballot.
Get to know your candidates here:
District 3: Aventura down to the beaches
Incumbent Martin Karp chose not to run again after four terms. Two Miami Beach Senior High teachers, a lawyer, a psychologist and a social worker are stepping up to fill his seat.
With $167,000 raised, Russ Rywell is the fundraising frontrunner and spender. Rywell, who has taught math at Beach High since 2011 and has been rated as a highly effective teacher, has also given at least $100,000 to his own campaign. He is also a former financier who has a declared net worth of $13 million and says his background in finance could be an asset on the board. He supports universal testing for gifted and is in support of an anti-racism curriculum.
Lucia Baez-Geller teaches language arts at Beach High and has worked for Miami-Dade County Public Schools since 2005. She has been rated as a highly effective teacher. Baez-Geller says she’s seen firsthand how School Board policy impacts the classroom and wants to address the overcrowding of schools, overworking of teachers and over testing of students. She has been endorsed by Congresswoman Donna Shalala, State Senator Annette Taddeo, Miami Shores Mayor Crystal Wagar and the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
Joshua Levy says he stands apart as being the only candidate with school-aged children. In a board made up of a majority of educators, Levy is a lawyer. He said he saw a stark difference in how his children were virtually educated during the spring semester and wants to address disparities in the classroom. He also wants to address large class sizes.
Levy is the current president of the Miami Beach Bar Association and vice chair of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. He also sits on the the City of Miami Beach’s Committee for Quality Education and is involved with the Miami-Dade County Council Parent Teacher Association.
Raquel Bild-Libbin, is a psychologist with a master’s degree in education. Her top issue is mental health and social-emotional competency for all students and says that awareness should begin in kindergarten. She disagrees with over testing and says there should be more internships and opportunities in career and technical education. Her husband is Jerry Libbin, the president and CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and past Miami Beach commissioner.
Marcela Gomez-Bogomolni, a social worker, wants to put an end to drugs and vaping in schools. She also champions mental health and is an advocate for immigrants and refugees. She wants to see a course in life skills for high school students to understand finances and economics.
In an interview with the Miami Herald Editorial Board, all five candidates appeared to be in agreement on many issues. They emphasized safety should schools reopen during the pandemic, and focused on the importance of mental health and the access and inclusion of Black students in advanced classes. All also supported an anti-racism curriculum and think highly of Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
District 5: Doral and Miami Springs
Susie Castillo started her two-term tenure on the School Board with heartbreak. Her 21-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash involving a Hialeah police officer right before her inauguration. Castillo, who works as the director of alumni relations at Florida International University, chose not to run for a third term.
Before she was elected to the School Board, Castillo served as the chief of staff to the mayor of Doral. That pipeline from Doral’s City Hall could continue.
Christi Fraga is the vice mayor of Doral. She has one child who is starting voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) this year. Fraga is big on parent involvement and making the school district accessible and easy to navigate. She is also a small business owner and runs Brain Freeze®️Nitrogen Ice Cream & Yogurt Lab in Doral. She has raised almost $65,000, more than any other candidate, and is backed by several real estate developers and construction companies.
Jaime Petralanda is a Miami Springs council member and a social studies teacher at Marcos A. Milam K-8 Center. He says his experience in the classroom and his connections in Tallahassee would benefit the School Board.
Petralanda told the School Board that local businesses need to get involved with helping schools as “the government cannot do everything. They do enough, they do a fine job.” He also says Carvalho has done a “fine job” on teacher salary increases, though many teachers would disagree with that statement.
When asked whether he would support a recent School Board proposal to explore anti-racism curriculum, Petralanda said he wasn’t sure because “I think there was more than just racism. There’s other aspects of the bill.”
In a follow-up phone call, a Herald reporter asked what he meant by “other aspects” of the proposal. He said he hasn’t looked into the proposal. “I’m not sure what I meant by that at the time,” Petralanda said.
There aren’t other aspects of that proposal beyond racism: A coordinated misinformation campaign spread lies about board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall’s proposal, saying the curriculum involved teaching Black Lives Matter principles and homosexuality. But Petralanda said at the Herald’s editorial board meeting that he would support an anti-racism curriculum as he is a minority.
Petralanda chose not to resign from the Miami Springs council to run, however his opponent and fellow council member, Mara Zapata, did in following the resign-to-run law. If he is elected, Petralanda is required to resign his Miami Springs seat before taking the school board seat.
Zapata is the vice mayor of Miami Springs. Her 30-year career in education spans from the classroom to training teachers at Miami Dade College and FIU. She wants to eliminate inequities between schools and go back to grassroots ways of involving parents, like hosting regular town halls. She said she would address and question how parental advocacy is factored into decisions. Zapata questions how close Carvalho is to some of the decisions that affect schools and families.
Michel Diaz Suarez is also in the running for District 5 but was a no-show at the Herald’s editorial board interview. He has raised $2,840, the least of any candidate running in any school board race. When reached by the Herald, he would only speak to a reporter via email and provided links to YouTube videos from 2018 of a show called “Business World MDC” where he spoke about coding in schools, social entrepreneurship and traffic.
MDC confirmed that he was an adjunct professor teaching business at the Kendall campus in Fall 2016. His financial disclosure shows that he derives income from a possibly education-related business called Cambridge located at his home address, but nothing by that name came up in a search of state corporation records.
In an email, Diaz Suarez said questions about what qualifies him for the school board and what he did for a living were not related to the school board race. His email address’ domain belongs to Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
“I understand that your a talented communicator but it sounds like your doing a hit piece,” he wrote in an email. “Not interested. Do what you have to do … knock yourself out with your article.”
Diaz Suarez followed up in another email saying he didn’t wish to participate in an interview and threatened a reporter with a lawsuit.
District 7: Southwest Miami-Dade, including Kendall
District 7 is the only School Board race on this year’s ballot with an incumbent. Lubby Navarro, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in February 2015 to a vacant seat, won her first election in August 2016. She says she deserves another term on the board because she was one of the policymakers behind the referendum that led to increased teacher pay and has overseen the improvement of South Miami-Dade schools.
Marie Flore Lindor-Latortue, a Miami Dade College adjunct professor teaching Health Sciences since 2012, touts her experience in education as well as her master’s in health services administration. She is campaigning on a platform of inclusion, which she says Navarro has “not been able to maintain and sustain.”
Lindor-Latortue, who is Haitian, says she brings sensitivity that is currently not present in a diverse district. She is also a proponent of term limits for school board members and said she wasn’t challenging Navarro but rather the school system.
Navarro took offense to that charge, saying she is half Black and that Miami-Dade is a county of inclusion. She also said elections are term limits. She commended Carvalho and said she was proud of bringing forth the proposal to extend his contract to 2023. Navarro is the director of governmental relations for Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood.
Lorraine Real, a retired Miami-Dade County teacher and elementary school assistant principal, said she got involved with the Parent Teacher Association and saw a need to run for school board.
“That’s when I actually walked around the schools and saw so many classrooms not being used. There was a lot of things that I noticed in the middle school that need fixing,” she said.
Real owns several commercial properties and runs a right-leaning “patriotic superstore.” She says she wants to bring in new ideas. Real said she was part of the parent group that discussed the referendum for teacher pay and was on the district’s budget committee. She wants to see more after-school programs and counselors in schools.
Asked about the proposal to explore anti-racism curriculum, Real said she hadn’t read the curriculum and therefore isn’t sure whether she’d support it. The proposal introduced by board member Bendross-Mindingall doesn’t propose a specific curriculum, but allows the superintendent to explore adopting a curriculum or enhance what the district already teaches.
District 9: Pinecrest to Homestead
After 12 years on the board, Larry Feldman is calling it quits to spend time with family. His tenure ends with a cloud of allegations that he does not live in his district, but rather in Lubby Navarro’s District 7.
Feldman has endorsed Nancy Lawther, former president of the Miami-Dade County Council PTA and a college professor who most recently taught at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Miami. She is active in several school district committees, is big on policy and has advocated for the PTA in Tallahassee.
Lawther says she believes schools need more autonomy and could benefit from breaking free from a top-down approach currently under the Carvalho administration.
Esther “Shelly” Fano’s 30-year career in education spans from early childhood to college. Most recently she has overseen Miami Dade College’s hospitality management program. Her son is former lieutenant governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Fano says her experience and background in crisis management could be good for the board, and she is a proponent of equity, quality and inclusion.
Term-limited county commissioner Dennis Moss joined the already crowded race right before qualifying. He said he joined the race after his friend, Pastor Gloria Angel Williams, dropped out. He points to his 27 years on the commission and experience rebuilding South Miami-Dade after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. His No. 1 issue is safety, and doesn’t want anyone to forget “what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas” while dealing with other issues.
Like Moss, Luisa Santos is a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. A former undocumented student, she went on from Miami Dade College to receive undergraduate degrees in education and political economy at Georgetown University. She is the owner of Lulu’s Nitrogen Ice Cream in Edgewater and has been involved in mentoring and literacy programs.
Santos says she’s running to address systemic issues in the school system. She says she believes businesses can pour resources into students to help overcome gaps.
Justin Koren, a former magnet teacher-turned assistant principal at Miami Killian Senior High, also grew up in the school district. He is campaigning on equitable raises for teachers, particularly mid-career and veteran teachers, and wants to see mental health prioritized. He says he believes transportation should be provided for students attending magnet programs and says morale is low among administrators.
In February 2009, Koren won a retaliation case against the School Board and his former boss, Southwood Middle School Principal Deborah Leal. Koren assisted a school security guard in filing a complaint against the principal. The guard accused Leal of retaliating against her because of her sexual orientation, and Koren said Leal retaliated against him for helping the guard with small spiteful actions.
Later that year, Leal accused Koren of violating the school board’s code of ethics and computer policy by sharing his password to the school’s e-grading system with a substitute teacher, which he admitted to. A witness in the case said he also gave the password to a student, who entered some of his classmates’ grades in the system. Koren denied that was true.
Koren eventually won the case before the Florida Supreme Court in 2012.
A complaint has been filed against Koren for filming a political ad on the Killian campus. The video also features photos of Koren with students in school.
The ad could not only violate the privacy rights of his students but also school board rules, which explicitly prohibit any school employee from using school property for political purposes or to influence an election.
Koren did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment.
Miami Herald staff writer Caroline Ghisolfi contributed to this report.