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New Miami-Dade school board members take oath of office, pledge to promote 'parental rights'

Kate Payne / WLRN
Newly-sworn in members of the Miami-Dade County School Board pose for a photo with their new colleagues. From left to right, Board Members Roberto Alonso, Lucia Baez-Geller, Lubby Navarro, Mari Tere Rojas, Luisa Santos, Monica Colucci, Christi Fraga and Steve Gallon.

Two allies of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis were ceremonially sworn in to the Miami-Dade County School Board on Tuesday. Roberto Alonso and Monica Colucci are among the two dozen local school board members who backed DeSantis’ agenda and won his endorsement — after pledging to prioritize parental rights and oppose what they claim is the “indoctrination” of students.

The school board auditorium was packed with supporters and local elected officials on Tuesday to watch the new board members take the oath of office. As they placed their hands on a Bible and pledged to fulfill their duties, it was Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez who administered the oath.

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Before the new members were sworn in, Father Julio De Jesus, a priest at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Hialeah, gave a blessing — urging the audience to trust in God and his “prophets.”

“You created man and woman in your own image and entrusted to us the care of the whole world. But because of disobedience and sin, we got separated from you. But because of your mercy, you sent us prophets to say ‘no, you can come back to me and order will come back to you’,” De Jesus said.

“We ask you, Almighty Father, to protect and guide all government officials, to protect and guide all police officers, but in particular to protect and guide the school board,” he prayed. “You [God] come first, and the rest will follow.”

Kate Payne / WLRN
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez (second from left) poses for a photo after administering the oath of office to incoming Miami-Dade School Board Members Roberto Alonso and Monica Colucci. At right is State Rep. Alex Rizo.

According to district staff, the new board members requested that De Jesus give an invocation for the ceremony, which is not uncommon for faith leaders to do. When new MDCPS school board members were sworn in after the 2020 elections, Rev. Kay Williams Dawson of the Cathedral of Praise gave an invocation.

But the religious tenor of Tuesday’s ceremony is notable at a time when Christian nationalism is taking hold as a political identity in Florida. DeSantis, who has been significantly expanding his influence over local education policy, has framed his clashes with political opponents as a Biblical battle against evil. DeSantis recently released a campaign ad that depicts him as a “fighter” ordained by God.

Nuñez dismissed the notion that her presence at the swearing-in on Tuesday is an indication of a Republican stronghold over the school board — which is ostensibly nonpartisan.

“Absolutely not. I’m here to celebrate the election of two board members that were duly elected by their voters in their respective districts. I was asked to swear in both, and I’m very proud to do that, and I think they’re proud to have me here,” Nuñez said. “There’s no signal being sent other than the fact that it’s a great day for them.”

In their speeches on Tuesday, both of the new members thanked God, their families and their supporters for helping them on the path to elected office.

Alonso is a vice president for the commercial real estate company Costa Realtors, a father of two school-age sons and a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. In 2020, he was appointed by DeSantis to serve as a trustee of Miami Dade College.

On Tuesday, Alonso said his family fled Cuba as a part of Operation Pedro Pan — a search for freedom that he says shaped his upbringing.

Kate Payne / WLRN
A Bible used to administer the oath of office to incoming members of the Miami-Dade County School Board sits on top of a copy of Robert's Rules of Order after a swearing in ceremony on Nov. 15, 2022.

“I've been blessed to grow up in a family which has always made faith, hard work, freedom and education our top priorities,” he said. “My grandparents and parents were exiles who came to this great nation with nothing, fleeing oppression and repression, searching for a better life where freedom and opportunity were the rule and not the exception.”

Colucci is a career educator in the district and spent 26 years as an elementary school teacher. Her daughter is a student at the University of Miami.

Colucci is also a personal friend of Lt. Gov. Nuñez and worked in her administration from Feb. 2019 to Aug. 2020 as a special assistant.

“When it comes to children, you have my pledge to never compromise … I will never settle for being politically correct — but rather morally correct,” Colucci said as the crowd applauded. “When it comes to children, I pledge to protect their minds, hearts and spirits — and in turn protect their innocence, which all children have a right to.”

Later, Colucci told WLRN that she’ll lean on her faith as a board member and believes that religion should play a larger role in public education.

“I think that there’s always a greater role for faith in schools,” she said. “Obviously respecting the faith of each individual family, because I have a profound respect for all faiths — but yes, I do.”

The newly-elected board members are scheduled to formally take office on Nov. 22.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter