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Miami-Dade school board picks Jose Dotres as next superintendent, following interviews with the three finalists

Headshot of each finalist: Dr. Jose L. Dotres, Dr. Rafaela Espinal and Jacob Oliva (left to right).
Headshot of each finalist: Dr. Jose L. Dotres, Dr. Rafaela Espinal and Jacob Oliva (left to right).

After a rapid and at times contentious search process, the Miami-Dade County school board has chosen Dr. Jose Dotres to become the next superintendent of the state’s largest school district.

Board votes 6-3 to appoint Dotres

Dotres, who spent three decades in M-DCPS as a teacher and administrator before leaving to become deputy superintendent of Collier County schools, will replace outgoing superintendent Alberto Carvalho, whose last day is scheduled for Feb. 3.

Board members voted 6 to 3 to appoint Dotres, who edged out two other finalists: Rafaela Espinal, an assistant superintendent in the New York City Department of Education and Jacob Oliva, a senior chancellor in the Florida Department of Education.

During nearly two hours’ worth of questions by board members, Dotres spoke of his goals and priorities, and his own educational journey, from learning English as a second language as a student to going on to teach reading and special education. He told the board he wouldn’t want the top job in any other district.

“I would not apply for any other superintendency. I would not. I only do it because of how much I care about this community and this school district,” Dotres said. “You see me here sitting again trying to pursue [this] because of the belief of what we're doing.”

Questions from board members established that Dotres currently lives in Weston in Broward County, not Miami-Dade, and that he does not plan to move. At least one board member hopes to add language to his contract requiring Dotres move into the district.

Dotres was also questioned about the increasing politicization of public education and how he would handle threats by Tallahassee politicians to undermine local control and academic freedom.

“I think the only way of addressing what you're bringing to the fold is being clear, being articulate, and taking a stand as long as what we're doing is right for children,” Dotres said.

“Here in Dade, I know we follow the science,” he added. “We have to be respectful of the law. But we also have to be able to articulate and stand together when we know that things that may be considered may be harming our children.”

Questioning from the board also revealed that Dotres is participating in DROP, a state deferred retirement program. WLRN requested clarification from a M-DCPS spokesperson on how many years Dotres will remain eligible to work but did not hear back before publishing.

Oliva, the runner-up who netted three board members’ votes, has been linked to a state bidding process that was investigated by the department’s own investigator general as a conflict of interest. The probe is now under investigation by the state inspector general. Board members did not ask Oliva about the bid or the ensuing investigations.

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Read below for updates from Monday's special meeting

Updated 10:49 p.m.

More than 20 students, parents and community leaders made public comments during Monday’s meeting, many of them criticizing the board for moving ahead with a search process that they say felt rushed. Speakers said the rapid search timeline and the scheduling of board meetings made it especially difficult for M-DCPS students and working parents to participate.

Board questions Dotres

Board members have now begun the interview process, questioning the candidates one by one in alphabetical order, beginning with Dr. Jose Dotres. Board members are taking turns reading through 9 questions that have been submitted by community organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Dade County School Administrators Association. If time allows, board members will have the opportunity to ask their own questions as well.

In an opening statement, Dotres told the board the reason he wants to lead M-DCPS is in order to give back to the community that he says welcomed him at age five, taught him English, and set him on a path of success as a student. With his three decades of experience in the district, Dotres says he would provide “continuity” of leadership and “ensure stability during a time of constant and unpredictable change”.

Questions from the board revealed that Dotres doesn't live in Miami-Dade County but in Broward. Dotres said that he’s lived in Weston for 12 years and does not intend to move if selected, saying that he didn’t think residency in the district would be a job requirement, as it is for elected officials.

“I feel that Miami, although I live in Broward, I grew up here. All of my education occurred here. I feel Miami is my community as well, except that I'm just physically living in Broward,” Dotres said.

Dotres explained that while his commute may be longer than other employees in the district, he said it wouldn’t prevent him from fulfilling his duties and wasn’t an issue when he worked for M-DCPS in the past.

Espinal second candidate to be interviewed

After some two hours of questioning for candidate Jose Dotres, the board has moved on to the second candidate, Rafaela Espinal, currently the assistant superintendent in the Office of Talent Management & Innovation in the New York City Department of Education.

In an opening statement, Espinal spoke of her core values of hard work and passion, and the role that public education played in her success in the U.S. Espinal said her parents were undocumented when they arrived in from the Dominican Republic and she herself was thrust into a “monolingual classroom” in a “sink or swim model of education”, but says she succeeded because of her teachers, though they lacked bilingual programming.

Espinal went on to become a bilingual teacher herself, before working as a principal, superintendent and administrator in schools in New York and New Jersey. Questioned about achievement gaps in M-DCPS, Espinal said closing such gaps is “her expertise” and that she knows firsthand the barriers faced by students from marginalized communities.

“That's my expertise, closing the achievement gap and making sure students have equitable opportunities to achieve to their white counterparts,” Espinal said. “That's how I became a teacher. I said I can fix these gaps.”

Questioned about being the only finalist to come from outside of the state of Florida, Espinal said she would bring a fresh set of eyes to M-DCPS, with the ability to identify what’s working and elevate the district to the next level.

She spoke passionately about her identity as an Afro-Latina and her extended family’s roots in South Florida and the Caribbean, saying that while she isn’t from Miami, that shouldn’t outweigh her professional accomplishments and her ability to connect with the community.

“What demographic don't I fill? What makes me not fit in?” she asked. “If Máximo Gómez could be welcomed to lead the war in Cuba, why can’t you welcome a Dominican Latina, American, Afro-Latina to Miami to lead your district? This is a different kind of war. We're in the middle of a pandemic facing unprecedented challenges.”

Questioned about her timeline to relocate, Espinal said she could move to Miami next week if needed, and would remain with the district as long as the board would have her, with the goal of beating Carvalho’s 14 year tenure as superintendent.

Oliva final candidate to be interviewed

The final candidate to be publicly interviewed by the board was Jacob Oliva, a senior chancellor at the Florida Department of Education and a top deputy for Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. In an opening statement, Oliva spoke of what he called his “humble beginnings”, growing up in Miami and in M-DCPS schools as the son of a Cuban immigrant.

Oliva was questioned by board member Lucia Baez-Geller, as the other candidates were, about how he would handle attempts by Tallahassee politicians to undermine local control and academic freedom in M-DCPS.

If given the opportunity, Oliva said he would take his directions from the local school board and implement their policy.

“When you say Tallahassee, I'm sure there's a perception that I'm part of that,” Oliva said. “I do work for the Department of Education in Tallahassee. But as a school superintendent, I would work for this board and I would work for this community.”

Oliva is linked to a Department of Education corruption scandal that is now under investigation by the state Inspector General.

Late last year, the department solicited proposals for a multi-million dollar contract to provide curriculum coaching and other support to the small, troubled school district in Jefferson County, which is transitioning out of charter-school control. One of the applications that was submitted came from a company founded by Oliva as well as two other top state education officials: then-vice chancellor Melissa Ramsey and State Board of Education member Andy Tuck.

The department’s own inspector general flagged the application as a conflict of interest, since the three administrators had inside knowledge of the request for proposals and would therefore have a competitive advantage. As a result of the investigation, Ramsey and Tuck resigned their positions. Oliva, though, was cleared.

According to the investigation, Oliva did not know Ramsey and Tuck planned to submit the application, and he did not approve of their decision.

“I was not aware of that application going in,” Oliva told WLRN. “I’d never seen it. When it was brought to my attention, I immediately notified my direct supervisor, and [State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran] took swift action to make sure it was thoroughly investigated.

“I was fully exonerated,” he said.

Oliva also said he did not consent to starting the company, Strategic Initiatives Partners LLC, with Ramsey and Tuck.

“I never signed anything,” he said. “I never gave approval.”

He explained the business as rising out of a misunderstanding: “There may have been some conversations from long ago that were taken out of context.”

Oliva’s name and address, as well as the other partners’, are included on the company’s incorporation papers from last August. His signature is not on the document. However, he does appear to have signed a second document resigning from the business a few months later, in November.

The bid-rigging probe was first reported by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.

During their questioning of Oliva at Monday's meeting, none of the board members questioned him about his role in the bidding process and the ensuing investigations.

Vice Chair Steve Gallon questioned Oliva more generally about any role he played in the privatization of Jefferson County schools and the oversight of the charter school company put in control, much of which Oliva said was out of his purview until this past year.

This is a developing story. This post will be updated with details.

Original story follows:

The top three candidates to take the helm of Miami-Dade County Public Schools are being publicly interviewed Monday at a special school board meeting beginning at 2 pm. Tune in to the meeting here.

The three finalists to replace outgoing superintendent Alberto Carvalho are:

  • Dr. Jose Dotres, deputy superintendent of Collier County Public Schools
  • Dr. Rafaela Espinal, assistant superintendent in the Office of Talent Management & Innovation in the New York City Department of Education
  • Jacob Oliva, a senior chancellor in the Florida Department of Education, overseeing the state’s Division of Public Schools

Read more about the three finalists here.

All three candidates will get the chance to make their case in a public forum at Monday’s meeting and field inquiries from board members, who solicited questions and input from community stakeholders.

The board has been conducting the search process at a fast pace that has prompted a stream of criticism from community members and students. The board refused calls from community groups to conduct a national search, instead posting the job application for just seven days.

Some M-DCPS students plan to conduct a sit-in protest during Monday’s meeting to draw attention to a search process that they say feels rushed and exclusionary and hasn’t allowed for enough community engagement.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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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