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Florida's Largest School Districts Get New Leaders As COVID-19 Cases Mount

Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald
Miami Beach High history teacher Charles Pilamunga participates in a rally outside of the Miami-Dade County School Board Administration Building in downtown Miami on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. A third of the school board will turn over during one of the most tumultuous times in the district's history.

Four new elected officials will help lead Florida's largest school districts amid one of the greatest crises in their history: a global pandemic.

Florida’s largest school districts will welcome four new leaders as they battle rising COVID-19 cases and face mounting pressure from the state to keep campuses open.

In Miami-Dade County, a third of the board will be new starting later this month. Doral vice mayor Christi Fraga, Miami Beach Senior High School teacher Lucia Baez-Geller and entrepreneur Luisa Santos won open seats on the powerful board.

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While Fraga was endorsed by Republican leaders, Baez-Geller and Santos were the county Democratic Party’s picks. The races are nonpartisan.

Meanwhile, in Broward County, the board will soon include two members who lost loved ones in the Parkland shooting.

Debbi Hixon won a countywide seat on the board with more than two thirds of the vote. A veteran public school teacher who lives in Hollywood, Hixon lost her husband, Chris, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.

Meet The Next Miami-Dade County School Board Members

The closest runoff was between Santos and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss. Santos took 52% of the vote, beating Moss for the district that includes Homestead, Pinecrest and Cutler Bay.

Santos is a product of the Miami-Dade school district. An immigrant from Colombia, she found out in high school that she was undocumented.

She later became a citizen and started her own business: Lulu’s Nitrogen Ice Cream in Edgewater.

“We did something that everyone thought was impossible,” Santos said during a virtual watch party Tuesday night. “From day one, they were shocked when we made it to the general. And they’re shocked right now. But that is what we know should be possible for every child in this school system.”

Santos replaces Lawrence Feldman on the board.

Moss, who won 48% of the vote, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fraga — who is term-limited as Doral’s vice mayor and also owns an ice cream shop called Brain Freeze — took about 56% percent of the vote, compared to 44% for her opponent, Mara Zapata. Fraga will represent district 5 on the board, which includes a western portion of the county.

Fraga will 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. A new elementary school opened this fall in Doral bearing her daughter’s name: Andrea Castillo Preparatory Academy.

Zapata is the former Miami Springs vice mayor and a lifelong educator.

Meanwhile, Baez-Geller won about 61% of the vote in a district that includes a coastal strip of the county, stretching from Aventura down to Miami Beach. She defeated Russ Rywell, also a teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School, who took about 39% of the vote.

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.

She will replace Martin Karp, who is retiring.

Zapata and Rywell did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday night.

Veteran Teacher, Widow Of Parkland Victim Wins Broward Seat

Hixon celebrated her win with family and friends during a virtual watch party Tuesday night. She said she was relieved to have won by a big margin.

“I’m so happy that it wasn’t just a squeaking by,” she said.

Hixon thanked the more than half a million people who voted for her for “support[ing] me, my family and the memory of Chris. This is such an honor.”

She joins another board member who was personally affected by the Parkland tragedy. Lori Alhadeff was elected to the board just months after the shooting, during which her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was also killed.

Hixon vowed to “lift up teachers” and make improving access to mental health care a priority for the board.

Hixon has worked at South Broward High School for 27 years, and she said she would struggle with leaving her position as a magnet coordinator there. She won’t be able to continue working at the school once she takes office.

“It’s my home, and it’s hard,” she said during the watch party, “but I hope that I’m able to do great things on a bigger scale.”

Holness, who is also a veteran educator and took about 33% of the vote, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the results.

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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