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2020 November Election: A Third Of Miami-Dade School Board Is Up For Grabs, And Candidates With Parkland Ties Fight For At-Large Broward Seat

Miami Dade school board Herald Alex Harris.jpeg
Alex Harris/Miami Herald
After the November election, a third of the Miami-Dade County School Board will be new.

Voters narrowed down crowded fields of candidates to two finalists in each race: three in Miami-Dade and one in Broward.

The candidates vying for seats on the Miami-Dade school board this election cycle include a sitting county commissioner, the current or immediate past vice mayors of Doral and Miami Springs, two teachers at the same high school, immigrants from Colombia, Cuba and the Bahamas, and — incredibly — two different women entrepreneurs who own nitrogen ice cream shops.

A third of the board is on the ballot during a global pandemic. Three current school board members opted not to seek re-election, leaving open seats that attracted crowded fields during the August primaries.

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Now that voters have narrowed down the candidates to just two finalists in each district, the runoffs will answer the question: Who will lead the nation’s fourth largest school district — and approve its $5 billion budget — during one of the worst crises in modern history?

In Broward County, the runoff for an at-large seat could result in the school board gaining its only male member. Or the board could end up with a second official who lost a loved one in the 2018 Parkland school shooting.

Here’s a look at the school board races on ballots in South Florida:

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY

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Russ Rywell, left, and Lucia Baez-Geller, right, are running to represent district 3 on the Miami-Dade County School Board.

District 3: Aventura, Miami Beach, part of downtown Miami

The district 3 race is a win-win for Miami Beach Senior High School: No matter who gets elected, the next board member will be one of the school’s own.

Lucia Baez-Geller and Russ Rywell are both teachers at the public high school, although they’ve both taken leaves of absence this year to focus on their campaigns. They’re facing each other in the race to replace the retiring Martin Karp, and the winner will represent a coastal strip of the county that stretches from Aventura down to Miami Beach.

The contest is between two passionate educators.

Baez-Geller has spent her 15-year career in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, serving as a steward in the local teachers union and advocating for public education support in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

Baez-Geller said, during her time teaching college-level language arts and sociology to high school students, she has seen “what works and what doesn't work in school board policy and how it affects us on the ground,” she said.

“I've also seen the effects of the overcrowding of classrooms, the overworking of teachers, the over-testing of students — all of this firsthand,” she said. “And I haven't been on the sidelines. I’ve been on the front lines.”

Rywell has a more varied background, with experience in finance as well as teaching roles in both private and public schools, and a particular focus on establishing speech and debate programs.

His career includes a stint with Citigroup in Singapore and two decades split between Ransom Everglades School, an expensive private school in Coconut Grove, and Beach High, his alma mater. He has taught mathematics, Advanced Placement economics and speech and debate.

Rywell cited his training and experience in finance as a particular strength given the budgetary difficulties the district is likely to face as the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I've worked in very large organizations outside the district, like Citigroup. I've managed a business. I know what it's like to hire people,” he said. “I have the financial expertise to break down a 300-page budget.”

Primary results: Baez-Geller was the top finisher during the Aug. 18 primary, earning 27.64% of the vote. Rywell made it to the runoff with the second-place tally of 25.92%.

Endorsements: Baez-Geller has been endorsed by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and a series of prominent Democratic elected officials, including Congresswoman Donna Shalala and state Sens. Oscar Braynon, Jose Javier Rodriguez and Annette Taddeo.

Rywell snagged the Miami Herald’s endorsement, although the editorial board wrote it was a “tough call” and said both candidates are “capable and knowledgeable.”

The United Teachers of Dade endorsed Rywell during the primary elections and then announced support for both finalists in the runoff.

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The City of Doral, Florida International University
Christi Fraga, left, and Mara Zapata, right, are running to representing district 5 on the Miami-Dade County School Board.

District 5: Doral, Miami Springs

Both candidates in this race are hoping to replace the title “vice mayor” with “school board member.”

Mara Zapata resigned from her position as vice mayor of Miami Springs in order to run for the school board seat that includes a western chunk of the county. Christi Fraga is term-limited as vice mayor of Doral.

They both hope to replace Susie Castillo, who chose not to run for a third term, in part because she works full time as director of alumni relations for Florida International University. Castillo’s tenure was marked by tragedy, as her daughter Andrea was killed in a car accident just months after she was first elected in 2012.

Castillo has thrown her support to Zapata, who is a lifelong educator. Born in Cuba, Zapata came to South Florida when she was an infant. She served as a public school teacher and administrator and then helped train future teachers at Miami Dade College. She teaches now at Florida International University.

Zapata argued she was a better choice than her opponent because of her extensive experience in education.

“How can we afford, at this point — when we are not only on the local stage but on the national stage in terms of what's happening in our schools — to have someone who doesn't bring that experience, who has to go through a huge learning curve to address any of these issues?” Zapata said. “We owe it to our children and our parents and our teachers to have someone with experience in this position.”

Fraga highlighted the educational initiatives she has spearheaded during her eight years in elected office in Doral. She sponsored a plan to donate the city government’s used computers to local schools, and she also worked with FIU leaders to establish trolley service connecting Doral to the school’s main campus in Sweetwater.

Fraga is also a small business owner. Her ice cream shop Brain Freeze has locations in Doral and Kendall. Her job includes coming up with the flavors, including her favorite: the Big Bang, a salted caramel ice cream with pieces of dark chocolate double fudge cake and caramel swirl.

She is the mother of a 5-year-old son who currently attends a voluntary pre-kindergarten program at a community-based organization and will soon attend public schools in the district. She sees that as a unique attribute.

“You have to be able to understand what's currently happening in real time — not understanding what it feels like to be a parent dropping off your child at school 15, 20 years ago,” Fraga said. “How does it feel right now? … I think that's a perspective that is extremely important to have on the school board.”

Primary results: The primary race was extremely close. Fraga took 38.9% of the vote, and Zapata got 38.7%.

Endorsements: Zapata has been endorsed by Castillo, the Miami Herald editorial board, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and the United Teachers of Dade.

Fraga has been endorsed by local Republican leaders including state Sens. Manny Diaz Jr. and Rene Garcia.

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Miami Herald file, Facebook
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis C. Moss, left, and Luisa Santos, right, are running to represent district 9 on the Miami-Dade County School Board.

District 9: Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Homestead

A Black veteran local policymaker is facing a Latina millennial entrepreneur in the race to represent the southernmost part of Miami-Dade County on the school board.

Dennis C. Moss has served on the Miami-Dade County commission since 1993 and is ineligible to seek reelection because of term limits instituted in 2012. Early in his career, Moss assisted in South Dade’s recovery from Hurricane Andrew.

He later created and operated an alternative education center for at-risk students. The Richmond-Perrine Optimist Club grew out of his concerns about the disproportionate number of Black children receiving suspensions and expulsions.

Luisa Santos owns an Edgewater ice cream shop, Lulu's Nitrogen Ice Cream. The business employs high school and college students, and as part of their employment she provides them with financial literacy instruction and college advising.

Santos studied education, has some teaching and tutoring experience and is a board member for the local education advocacy group P.S. 305. She has also been active in Democratic politics, appearing in a 2016 presidential campaign ad for Hillary Clinton and hosting phone banks for 2018 gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum.

Both candidates are immigrants, and immigration policy has become a point of contention in the race. Santos is from Colombia and was formerly undocumented, an experience that shaped her and influenced her decision to run for the school board. Moss is from the Bahamas.

In 2017, Moss was one of three Democrats on the Miami-Dade commission who voted to end so-called “sanctuary” policies in county jails, a decision that meant the county would begin detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of federal authorities.

As reported by our news partner The Miami Herald, Moss explained the decision by arguing that immigrant rights groups, largely led by Latinos, didn’t lend enough support to issues important to Miami-Dade’s Black communities.

The Miami-Dade Democratic Party endorsed Santos in part because local leaders were disappointed in Moss for that vote and his explanation, which they said suggested that policymaking should be transactional and ignored Black immigrants’ interests.

Moss doubled down on that position during an interview with WLRN.

“It is transactional, and it needs to be more transactional,” Moss said. “Because, at the end of the day, the expectation is that Black elected officials are supposed to support these issues. And when it comes down to issues involving the Black community, you don't see the same kind of support in return. That’s just fairness.”

Santos took issue with his position.

“I don't view anybody's rights or plight or struggle as transactional,” she said. “Human rights are not transactional. Immigrant rights are not transactional. Black rights are not transactional. And they should never be pinned against one another.”

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in civil court seeks to toss Santos off the ballot, claiming that she doesn’t live in the district. She’s fighting the lawsuit, which she called “frivolous.”

Moss said he is not behind the legal challenge. The action was filed by a man named Christian Santos who is identified as a resident in the district.

The lawsuit follows a similar concern surrounding the board member who is vacating the seat: Lawrence Feldman. He 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 our news partner 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.

Primary results: Moss won the primary with 27.58% of the vote, and Santos finished in second place with 21.6%.

Endorsements: Santos was endorsed by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Moss got the support of the United Teachers of Dade. The Miami Herald editorial board recommended Moss, after first lending its endorsement to a primary candidate who did not make it to the runoff: Nancy Lawther.

Earlier this month, the board wrote that both Moss and Santos “make solid cases for what they can bring to the School Board.”

BROWARD COUNTY

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Provided
Debbi Hixon, left, and Jeff Holness, right, are running for an at-large seat on the Broward County School Board.

Seat 9: At-large

Two veteran educators with ties to Parkland, and a focus on school safety, are competing for an countywide seat on the Broward County school board.

Debbi Hixon is a 32-year teacher and the widow of Chris Hixon, the athletic director and security monitor who was killed during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. If elected, Hixon would be the second member of the board who lost a loved one during the massacre. Lori Alhadeff won a seat on the board just months after her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed.

Hixon is also the mother of a developmentally disabled son who has attended a virtual adult education program during the pandemic. The experience has given her insight into the struggles many parents of children with disabilities have been facing since schooling shifted online, she said.

Hixon’s focus on school safety following the shooting has evolved since the onset of COVID-19.

“Now, safety has a different connotation to it, and it means different things,” she said. “Do we have the right PPE [personal protective equipment]? Are we making sure we're social distancing? How are we cleaning?”

Jeff Holness lives in Coral Springs and his two sons attend schools in Parkland. He makes the case that, if elected, he would bring a unique perspective to the board: that of a father. That’s because he would be the only man on the board, which is currently made up of nine women.

Holness would also be only the second Black member, and he would add an immigrant perspective to the board — he was born in Jamaica.

He is also a distant cousin of Broward County Mayor Dale Holness.

Holness is a former public school teacher and now runs a franchise location of Kumon Math and Reading Center in Coral Springs. He said he is working on a transition plan to resume in-person learning at the center, which gives him a better understanding of what school board members are facing as the district undergoes its own reopening.

“I believe my business acumen will be essential in the district's decision making process going forward, as it relates to the budget,” he said.

Primary results: Hixon was the clear frontrunner with 41.57% of the vote. Holness came in second with 25.93%.

Endorsements: Hixon has been endorsed by the Sun Sentinel editorial board and the Broward Teachers Union as well as other labor groups.

Holness is supported by the Broward County Democratic Black Caucus and Bless Broward, a coalition of local clergy, among others.