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Three Counties, Nine Races: Elections Could Reshape South Florida School Boards

Jessica Bakeman
Miami-Dade County School Board Members Lawrence Feldman and Susie Castillo, from left, are two of three incumbents not seeking re-election this cycle.

Four incumbent school board members in South Florida are fighting to keep their seats on Tuesday, and at least a third of the Miami-Dade County School Board will turn over this cycle.

At least a third of the seats on the Miami-Dade County School Board will soon be occupied by newcomers, as voters make their first round of selections Tuesday before potentially heading into runoffs in the fall.

In Broward County, the school board could soon include two members who were deeply personally affected by the Parkland school shooting. A veteran teacher and the widow of a beloved coach who was killed during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre is a contender for a county-wide seat. Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter Alyssa, won a place on the board just months after the incident.

And in each of South Florida’s three large counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — there’s at least one incumbent fighting to keep his or her seat.

Here’s more on the South Florida school board races on Tuesday’s ballot:

Broward County

District 3

School Board Member Heather Brinkworth is facing challenger Sarah Leonardi, a teacher who won the endorsement of the Broward Teachers Union and has kept fundraising pace with the incumbent. They’re competing to represent the district that includes Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park and Wilton Manors.

Brinkworth, a former teacher who has served on the board for six years, was endorsed by the Sun Sentinel editorial board, which argued she was “a voice of moderation on the board” who is unafraid to push back against the district’s administration.

District 9 (at-large)

In this county-wide at-large seat, five people are competing to replace Robin Bartleman, who resigned her post to run for the Florida House of Representatives.

The Sun Sentinel endorsed Debra Hixon, a 31-year teacher whose late husband was beloved Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School wrestling coach Chris Hixon. He was killed during the 2018 shooting.

According to the newspaper, the other candidates are: Narnike Grant, president of the Heron Heights Elementary PTA; long-time educator and former three-time candidate for public office Jeff Holness, who won the endorsement of the Broward County Democratic Black Caucus; Joyce Williams-Bryan, who was the first Black mayor of Margate; and Jimmy Bernard Witherspoon, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

Miami-Dade County

District 3

Five candidates are vying to fill the seat left open by Martin Karp in the district that stretches from Aventura down to Miami Beach. Karp has held the seat since 2004 and is the former vice chair.

According to our news partner the Miami Herald, the candidates are: Lucia Baez-Geller, a teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School who has received big-name endorsements like that of U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala; psychologist Raquel Bild-Libbin, whose husband, Jerry Libbin, is a former Miami Beach commissioner and the current leader of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce; social worker Marcela Gomez-Bogomolni; lawyer Joshua Levy, who is the current president of the Miami Beach Bar Association and vice chair of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce; and Russ Rywell, also a teacher at Beach High, who has a net worth of $13 million and has given $100,000 to his campaign, the best-resourced in the field by far with a total of $158,000.

The Herald editorial board characterized the race as having “an embarrassment of strong candidates” and chose Rywell for its recommendation.

District 5

School Board Member Susie Castillo is another incumbent who chose not to seek re-election. Castillo, director of alumni relations at Florida International University, lost her daughter, Andrea, in a car accident shortly after she was elected to her first term on the board in 2012.

Four candidates are competing to replace her in the district that includes Doral and Miami Springs.

According to the Miami Herald: Christine Fraga is the vice mayor of Doral and the biggest fundraiser in the race, having raised more than $69,000; Jaime Petralanda serves on the Miami Springs city council and teaches at Marcos A. Milam K-8 Center; Michel Diaz Suarez is an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College; and Mara Zapata is former vice mayor of Miami Springs, a veteran educator and the Herald editorial board’s choice for the seat.

District 7

School Board Member Lubby Navarro is the only incumbent defending her seat this cycle. First appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 and re-elected in 2016, Navarro faces two challengers in her district, a large southwestern chunk of the county.

Navarro is director of governmental relations for Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, according to the Miami Herald.

Marie-Flore Lindor-Latortue is a Miami Dade College adjunct professor, and Lorraine Ordenes Real is a retired teacher and elementary assistant principal who runs a right-leaning “patriotic superstore,” the Herald reported.

Navarro got the Herald’s endorsement.

District 9

Relatively big names and big money characterize this crowded race to replace School Board Member Lawrence Feldman in a South Dade district that includes Pinecrest and Homestead.

The candidates include: Esther “Shelly” Fano, the head of Miami Dade College’s hospitality management program and the mother of former Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera; Miami Killian Senior High School assistant principal Justin Koren who has raised the most campaign dough, more than $156,000; former Miami-Dade County PTA president Nancy Lawther, endorsed both by Feldman and the Miami Herald; term-limited Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss; and entrepreneur Luisa Santos, who owns Lulu’s Nitrogen Ice Cream in Edgewater and appeared in a 2016 campaign ad for Hillary Clinton.

A controversy that has bubbled up during the campaign: Feldman has been accused of living outside the district he has represented since 2008 — a charge that, if true, could land him with a felony charge and a fine. He told the Miami Herald that he sleeps at a 400-square-foot studio in Pinecrest, while he and his wife also own a 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom home in West Kendall. When a Miami Herald reporter went to the West Kendall home to seek a comment from Feldman, he was there doing yard work.

Palm Beach County

District 1

In the northernmost school board district, which includes Jupiter, incumbent Barbara McQuinn is facing challenger Bonnie Jo Pettinga.

McQuinn, a veteran Palm Beach County educator who has served stints as a teacher, principal and regional superintendent, is now finishing her first term. She was endorsed by the Palm Beach Post editorial board, which noted McQuinn’s leadership in urging a later start to the upcoming school year because of the continued spread of COVID-19.

Pettinga is an entrepreneur and philanthropist, according to the Palm Beach Post. She and her husband hold a patent on a device that fetches golf balls out of holes. Pettinga cited her volunteer experience at her daughter’s schools in the 1990s and, more recently, her work on the board of a vocational school in her native Michigan.

Read more about the race in the Post.

District 2

The three-way race to fill a vacant seat in the east-central part of the county has seen the most spending this cycle. Alexandria Marie Ayala, David DiCrescenzo and Virginia Savietto are competing to replace School Board Vice Chair Chuck Shaw in the district including Palm Springs.

Ayala and Savietto are aides to county commissioners. DiCrescenzo works as a safety compliance officer for a Massachusetts-based construction company and runs a conservative news website, and he has shared conspiracy theories on social media, according to the Palm Beach Post.

The Post endorsed Ayala, and she has also out-raised her opponents. According to campaign finance records, Ayala has brought in more than $70,000, compared to Savietto’s about $25,000 and DiCrescenzo’s $10,000.

District 5

In the county’s southernmost school board district, which includes Boca Raton, the school board’s current chair is facing his first opponent since 2008.

Veteran attorney Frank Anthony Barbieri, Jr., is running for re-election against Suzanne Page, a former city planner and mortgage broker. The Palm Beach Post calls Page’s campaign a “long shot,” noting that she has not announced endorsements, provided interviews to local media or raised money for her campaign. Barbieri got the Post’s endorsement.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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