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'Breaking Down Barriers': After 2020 Elections, South Florida School Boards Are Younger, More Female, More Diverse

Luisa Santos Miami Herald photo.jpeg
Jose A. Iglesias/Miami Herald
Surrounded by members of her family, newly elected Miami-Dade County School Board Member Luisa Santos, 30, an ice cream shop owner, was sworn in on Nov. 17, 2020.

Several millennial women, Latinas and teachers are among the new school board members in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

When Luisa Santos was a student at Coral Reef Senior High School, she wanted to start a mentoring program for younger kids.

“In order to do that, you have to register with the district,” Santos said during a November 2019 video announcing her campaign for Miami-Dade school board. “That form, on the top right hand side, says, ‘Social Security Number.’ I asked my mom, I said, ‘What’s my social?’ And she said, 'You don’t have one.’”

That was how Santos found out she was undocumented. She was born in Colombia, and her parents brought her to South Florida when she was 8. She later became a citizen and started her own business, an ice cream shop in Edgewater.

Santos told this story again and again on the campaign trail. When she won the seat representing South Dade on the board, there was a new twist.

“As I filled out the form that was required for that — which by the way, I filled out again last week,” she said during her swearing-in ceremony on Nov. 17, almost exactly a year to the day after she announced her run. “The form is the same form that it was when I was a junior in high school, which brought back a flush of emotions.”

Santos has already begun using her position to help “dreamers” like her — young people who were born in other countries and grew up in the U.S. without legal status. At her first school board meeting, Santos’ proposal to make sure undocumented students know their options for college was approved unanimously.

“When you're the first, or one of a few, to do anything, people tend to look at you as the representative for that whole group, and that is a huge weight to carry,” Santos told WLRN. “I'm excited to show the world just how much we have to contribute.”

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Santos, 30, is also the youngest member of the Miami-Dade County school board — part of a new generation of school district leaders in South Florida. After this fall’s elections, the school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are younger, more female, and more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.

Jessica Bakeman/WLRN
Former Miami Dade College president Eduardo Padrón introduced Luisa Santos during her campaign kickoff fundraiser at an art gallery in downtown Miami on Dec. 17, 2019.

“We definitely brought the median age of the general board down a notch,” said Christi Fraga, 34, another newly elected school board member who represents Doral and Miami Springs on the board.

To be precise, Santos, Fraga and a third new board member, Lucia Baez-Geller, 37, lowered board members' median age by 15 years.

Voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties also elected their youngest school board members, both of whom prevailed outright in the August primary elections: Sarah Leonardi, 31, unseated an incumbent in a coastal Broward district; and Alexandria Ayala, 27, won a three-way race for an open seat in Palm Beach County.

“In my campaign, the issues about my age, the hesitations and the concerns, never came from the voters. They came from the folks who are already in the world of government or in the world of politics,” Ayala said. “The voters loved it.”

Ayala was working full time for a member of the Legislature during her campaign. She argued the pandemic made running for office more accessible for a younger, middle-income person.

“Virtual campaigning allowed me to do more events than I would have been able to do if I had to work 9 to 5 or 8 to 4, get in my car, drive somewhere in the county, drive somewhere else, be somewhere in person,” she said. “It would have been madness.”

Ayala is the first person of Hispanic descent ever elected to the Palm Beach County school board. Another Hispanic school board member, Ed Garcia, served in the early 2000s — but he was appointed, not elected, and he later resigned.

Ayala, who is Puerto Rican and moved to South Florida with her family when she was 7, is also the only one on the board who speaks fluent Spanish. That’s despite the fact that the county’s student population is more than a third Hispanic or Latino.

“Traditionally, government and elected roles are something that's held for older white gentlemen, and that's what it's been,” Ayala said. “We are changing and breaking down barriers of who is allowed to run, who has the pedigree to run, who has the look to run.”

Alexandria Ayala Sun Sentinel photo.jpg
Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel
Alexandria Ayala is sworn in as the newest member of the School Board of Palm Beach County during a ceremony in West Palm Beach on Nov.17, 2020.

The Miami-Dade County school board also grew more ethnically diverse during this year’s elections. With the addition of three Latinas — Baez-Geller, Fraga and Santos — there are now no white people who are not of Hispanic descent on the board. All of the school board members are Latina or Black.

“This seat has been held by a non-Hispanic white male for over 30 years,” said Baez-Geller, referring to the district she represents, which includes Aventura and Miami Beach.

She succeeded Martin Karp, who was first elected in 2004 and retired this year. Before him, Michael Krop held the seat, starting in 1980. He died in 2018.

Baez-Geller left her teaching job at Miami Beach Senior High School for her new job on the board. Her parents are from Colombia and Cuba.

“My students, they've always, always mentioned how it's important to them that they were represented by me, a first-generation American, just like them,” she said.

Lucia Baez Geller 2 Miami Herald.jpeg
Jose A. Iglesias/Miami HErald
Lucia Baez-Geller, center, is congratulated by her husband, David Geller, left, as her mother Stella Buenaventura, right, claps, during Baez-Geller's swearing-in ceremony on Nov. `17, 2020.

Baez-Geller and two teachers who joined the Broward school board this year said they will fight for better pay and working conditions for educators and make sure their voices are heard.

In Broward, Debbi Hixon won an at-large seat. Until her election, she spent more than three decades teaching in the district, ending her career as magnet coordinator at South Broward High School. Her late husband, Chris Hixon, was the athletic director and wrestling coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where he was killed in the shooting there on Feb. 14, 2018.

Leonardi taught English at Nova High School before she was elected.

She said she wants to stay connected to the classroom, so she plans to continue substitute teaching in other districts while she serves on the board. She is not able to continue teaching in Broward because that would create a conflict of interest: she would be her own boss.

“When I was knocking on doors and doing my phone banking, it really resonated with people. People were like, ‘Yeah, there should be an active teacher on the school board,’” she said. “I think there was a real hunger for that.”

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.