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Education election rundown: Miami-Dade incumbent ousted, grand jury casts shadow over Broward race

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Alie Skowronski / Miami Herald
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Monica Colucci, who challenged longtime incumbent Marta Perez for the Miami-Dade County School Board District 8 seat, hugs a supporter at her watch party at the Renaissance Ballrooms on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in West Miami.

Change is coming to South Florida's school boards. In Miami-Dade, a longtime incumbent is out. In Broward, a board member fights to keep her seat — while under threat of being removed from office.

In Miami-Dade, one of the longest serving school board members is voted out

A longtime Miami-Dade County school board member has been ousted by a political newcomer who was backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and who claims that educators are “indoctrinating” students.

Monica Colucci, an elementary school teacher who has spent 26 years in Miami-Dade classrooms, carried 53% of the vote Tuesday, knocking out Board Member Marta Pérez, who got 46% of the vote.

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Pérez, a former teacher and businesswoman, has held the District 8 seat since 1998, making her one of the longest-serving members of the board.

Speaking to a crowd of about 40 supporters at a watch party at the Renaissance Ballrooms on Calle Ocho, Colucci began her speech by thanking God.

“I have to thank God because without him and his strength, I don’t know if I would have made it to the finish line,” Colucci said. “The voters have spoken and they have decided that it is time for a new voice on the school board.”

Colucci’s upset win is a victory for “parents’ rights” groups like Moms for Liberty that have helped ignite a new political era in education politics across the country, with the backing of national conservative organizations and deep-pocketed donors.

At increasingly heated school board meetings, parents and activists have worked to oppose coronavirus precautions, ban books on subjects they find objectionable, and restrict discussions around LGBTQ issues.

READ MORE: An arrest at a Miami-Dade school board meeting raises civil liberties concerns

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Allie Skowronski / Miami Herald
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Florida Lt. Gov. Nuñez, right, speaks in support of the apparent victory of Monica Colucci during Colucci’s watch party at the Renaissance Ballrooms on Aug. 23, 2022, in West Miami. As of late Tuesday, Colucci won more than 50% of the vote in the Miami-Dade School Board District 8 race against longtime incumbent Marta Perez.

Colucci is one of 30 local school board candidates across the state who garnered an endorsement from DeSantis, who has ushered in new restrictions on how race, sexual orientation and gender identity can be talked about in the classroom.

Colucci has pledged to “keep woke ideologies out of the classroom”, to prioritize school safety and to expand school choice.

Asked if in her two decades in the classroom she has witnessed her colleagues indoctrinate students, Colucci demurred.

“My colleagues that I have taught with — no I have not,” Colucci said. “Thank goodness.”

Colucci is friends with and used to work for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, and is seen as an ally for the DeSantis administration on the board of the state’s largest school district.

Colucci has also come out in opposition to the district’s school funding referendum, which is on the ballot in November.

The measure is an extension and an increase of an existing property tax that voters approved in 2018. The measure would raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for teacher pay, school safety and mental health initiatives.

Board Member Pérez declined an interview request with WLRNTuesday evening. Pérez was among eight of the nine Miami-Dade County School Board members to approve a mask mandate back in August 2021, a decision which outraged DeSantis.

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Amy Beth Bennett
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Sun Sentinel
School Board Member Donna Korn sits on the dais at the Broward County School District administration building next to then-Superintendent Robert Runcie.

In Broward, a school board member advances to a runoff — even though she could be removed from office

A Broward County School Board member who could be removed from office will advance to a runoff election. Board Member Donna Korn will face off against business consultant Allen Zeman in the race to hold on to her district-wide seat.

Korn carried 30% of the vote in Tuesday’s election, with Zeman pulling in 29%. Eighteen-year-old student advocate Raymond Adderly came in third with 21%.

If Korn wins her runoff in November, she may not hold on to the office for long; a statewide grand jury investigation launched in the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gave a scathing assessment of Korn and four other school board members, recommending that Gov. Ron DeSantis remove them from office.

The grand jury report was published on August 19, just days before Election Day. The public release of the findings came too late for the thousands of Broward residents who had already voted.

READ MORE: Grand jury casts shadow over Broward school board elections

Zeman is a product of Broward County Public Schools and said he has three children currently enrolled in the district. He is a businessman and consultant who previously worked as Director of Naval Training and Education for the U.S. Navy.

Zeman has touted his executive and leadership experience and pledged to promote transparency and accountability in the district and has spoken out against House Bill 1557 and other state laws which he has described as an attack against public schools and LGBTQ people.

If people are removed after an election has taken place and then the governor gets to appoint people to our board, it really is counterintuitive to the will of the voters, right?
Broward School Board Member Sarah Leonardi

With the shadow of the grand jury hanging over Korn— and the possibility that she could be removed from office — Korn’s opponents have criticized her decision to run for reelection and called on her to drop out.

Korn declined an interview request from WLRN Tuesday evening.

Under state law, DeSantis has broad powers to remove local officials from office, including for malfeasance, misfeasance and neglect of duty. DeSantis can then appoint someone else to the office, who would serve the balance of the term.

Speaking to WLRN before Election Day, Broward County Board Member Sarah Leonardi raised concerns about the prospect of a member being removed from office shortly after being reelected, in effect invalidating the will of the voters.

“If people are removed after an election has taken place and then the governor gets to appoint people to our board, it really is counterintuitive to the will of the voters, right?” Leonardi said.

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Courtesy of Broward County Public Schools
Superintendent Vickie Cartwright (behind the podium) talks about the upcoming school district referendum during a press conference July 26, along with some board members, Broward teacher union leaders and district staffers.

Broward, Monroe County voters approve property tax to fund schools

Voters in Broward and Monroe counties have decided to renew local property taxes to help increase teacher pay and fund school safety measures.

The referenda passed with 57% of the vote in Broward and 74% in the Keys.

School officials said the tax is needed to make up for what they call a critical lack of state funding.

The money will go toward staff salaries, mental health initiatives and school security.

Broward voters approved the measure just days after the release of a statewide grand jury report that called for the ouster of four sitting school board members for mismanagement of district funds.

In a written statement, Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright did not mention the grand jury findings but said "we are truly grateful for the voters’ support."

"These referendum dollars will ensure that the district continues its students first approach by allowing us to retain and recruit top talent for our district in safe learning environments while providing mental health supports for our students," Cartwright said.

Similar questions are on the ballot in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties in November.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter