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Why the first and only Latina on the Palm Beach County school board won't seek reelection

Alexandria Ayala was elected in 2020, becoming the first Hispanic woman on the Palm Beach County School Board. She told WLRN she won't seek another term.
Alexandria Ayala
Alexandria Ayala was elected in 2020, becoming the first Hispanic woman on the Palm Beach County School Board. She told WLRN she won't seek another term.

When Alexandria Ayala was elected in the fall of 2020, becoming the first Hispanic woman on the Palm Beach County School Board, school leaders were facing unprecedented obstacles during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The then superintendent, Donald Fennoy, resigned less than a year later over personal reasons amid challenges with the return to in-person classroom education. And controversial mask mandates in schools and other tough decisions made by school boards across the state had turned into political fodder.

“It was very challenging. It was stressful,” Ayala told WLRN. “We were learning as we went and trying to do the best that we could with the information we had that kept changing at any given month or moment.”

Ayala, who currently represents District 2 in the central part of the county, which includes parts of Greenacres, Haverhill, Palm Springs, and Lake Worth, is now advocating against what she sees as the increasing politicization of school board across the state.

But, this time, she wants to do it outside of the school system. After just one term, the first and only Latina on the seven-member Board is one of three incumbents who won't seek another term, leaving seats up for grabs in the upcoming nonpartisan election for the tenth-largest school district in the country.

Frank Barbieri represents District 5 in West Boca Raton — the former School Board chair is retiring after serving on the board since 2008. And Barbara McQuinn, the school board's vice chair representing District 1 in Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter, is leaving after serving on the board since 2016.

For the nonpartisan primaries on Aug. 20, three candidates are running to replace McQuinn and five candidates for Barbieri’s seat.

But Ayala’s seat will not have an election because only one candidate has qualified to run, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

READ MORE: Portrait unveiled of Hispanic leader in Palm Beach. Soon to grace newest public high school

Mariana "Mari" Blanco, assistant executive director for the nonprofit Guatemalan-Maya Center,who Ayala had endorsed for the seat, recently dropped out due to the birth of her first child and other personal reasons, Blanco told WLRN.

With Angel L. Rodriguez Suarez, having failed to qualify, Virginia Savietto, who ran against Alexandria Ayala in 2020, will be running unopposed..

Whatever I can do to offer a successful transition for the good of what our community needs, I will look forward to doing that,” said Ayala. “And all we can do is wish her success so that we can all benefit.”

Ayala’s current term ends on Nov. 19. She told WLRN she will remain in the education space, spearheading the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee, which gives a voice to participating students, and championing language programs and professional representation in a growing Hispanic community.

She spoke with WLRN’s Palm Beach County reporter Wilkine Brutus for an exit interview. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: Why have you chosen to not seek a second four year term? 

AYALA: It wasn't easy, I'll say that. I've really thoroughly enjoyed so many parts of this role. But number one, I really love my career. I work at the Euclid Group as director of public policy where I get to impact a lot of different things throughout Palm Beach County with our work as development consultants for land use firms and for real estate. That's been really enjoyable to me. I'm looking forward to getting more involved with my career.

Second, I'm kind of closing a chapter and opening another one. I've become engaged and I'm looking forward to moving forward in my life with my partner and third, I'm looking forward to being able to work on education from a different perspective.

Politics has made its way into non partisan school boards in recent years. Last year, the Palm Beach County School Board had to remove things like "inequities and institutional racism" from its equity policy statement after pressure from the state. How has the political influence within public education in Florida impacted the way in which school board members do their job?

During these last four years, we saw a lot of decisions made based on the circumstances that were laid out in front of us. There was that initial push in 2020 when we had kind of a reconciliation and conversation in the society and in the country around a lot of realities that we need to confront in our society. And then immediately we all kind of had to do an about-face based on some political and social divisions and culture wars, let's call them.

That all came to a head right at the front of the school boards. We were in the trenches of a lot of those movements. And so I think the politics of it is really, really dangerous. And proposals like partisan school board races are very dangerous. The decisions that we make as school board members are for children for their success, for their preparation, and for their families' future.

You've championed a number of changes in the district, such as the district's student advisory board and dual language programs. Why were these things important? 

They're important because they're responding to the community in so many ways, right? The student's Superintendent's Advisory Committee is one of the things I'm the most proud of. That is a direct line of communication between students in our schools to our superintendent on policies and what they want out of their education.

When we're talking about dual language programs and the expansion of our international Spanish academies, it's a proven fact that students that are bilingual, trilingual — that are given those opportunities — have larger success in every aspect of their education and we're a leader of that in Palm Beach County and I'm proud to have championed that more. And that ties into more hispanic leadership at all levels.

We've enhanced hispanic principal representation, assistant principal representation, teacher representation, making sure that students can see themselves. in these professional roles and feel that they have a trusted adult.

As our Hispanic community continues growing, it means the world to them to know that they have space. And they belong in all spaces, so those are just some of the things that we’ve done.

So those are just some of the things that we've done that I'm extremely proud of. And they matter because they show our community that we are responsive, that we listen to them and that we are always challenging ourselves to push our boundaries and be the best.

The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 20. General election day is scheduled for Nov. 5. For more information about voting, visit Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections.

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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