Miami-Dade School Board Elects New Chair, Who Opposes Suing Over Charter School Law

Nov 14, 2017

It took Miami-Dade County’s school board 30 rounds of voting before a majority agreed on its next chair: Perla Tabares Hantman.

For about an hour of sometimes tense exchanges, the nine-member board struggled over two directions: electing an experienced chief, or providing new opportunities to those who haven’t had a chance to lead. Hantman has already served in the post for nine years cumulatively.

But hanging over their debate was the specter of House Bill 7069, a controversial new law that has drawn lawsuits from school districts in Broward, Palm Beach and a dozen other counties. Other school boards have argued it illegally strips local elected officials of their power to oversee charter schools and drives more money to the privately run institutions.

Hantman is the only one on Miami-Dade County’s board who voted against suing over H.B. 7069. Members decided to first try to “exhaust” attempts at negotiating with legislators over potential amendments to the law.

Board member Lubby Navarro, who nominated Hantman and voted for her consistently, called her a “proven leader” who could most effectively advocate for the district in Tallahassee, especially since the incoming House speaker, Rep. Jose Oliva, is from Miami. Navarro worked as a legislative aide and later a lobbyist in the capital for more than two decades.

“Tallahassee is about access and relationships,” she said. “We need to be poised to achieve success this coming year in Tallahassee.”

Board member Marta Pérez quipped in response: “Obviously none of us, in all of our efforts, were very influential at all, because we got H.B. 7069.

“The only thing that we didn’t do was get on our hands and knees,” Pérez said of the board’s efforts to stop or mitigate aspects of the law. “And if there was power to be had, it was to be exerted then.”

Pérez argued it was a mistake to elect Hantman as chair since she voted against suing over H.B. 7069.

“I think the leadership on the board should be reflective of the position of the board,” said Pérez, who pushed to elect Martin Karp as chair and later, successfully, as vice chair.

The question of a lawsuit will come up again during the board’s monthly meeting on Wednesday, which will now be managed by Hantman. The body will consider a resolution from the immediate past chair, Lawrence Feldman, in which he proposes members commit to taking legal action by mid-January. That is a key deadline, he argued, because the “most onerous financial implications” of the law go into effect in February.

Hantman said she hasn’t changed her position.

“I feel that we can get more from the state by being friendly than by engaging in a lawsuit,” she said.

Feldman played a role in extending the lengthy decision-making process on Tuesday, nominating and voting repeatedly for Susie Castillo, despite her having declined  for personal reasons.

From the start, Hantman voted for herself and had the support of three other colleagues: Navarro, Castillo and Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall. But the fifth vote required for a majority was elusive. Others voted initially for Karp and Steve Gallon III.

Time and again, board members voted the same way. After several rounds with the exact same tally, some changed their votes, and at times, Navarro and Bendross-Mindingall also earned votes. At one point, Karp had four votes.

Frustrated with the possibility that the meeting could drag on for hours with the board at a stalemate, Castillo asked the district’s attorney if there was any way to resolve the question without five members voting for one person for chair. She suggested she could abstain or leave the room. Neither would make a difference, the lawyer, Walter Harvey said. In the board’s history, it once took 101 rounds of voting to elect a chair, he said.

At one point, Pérez asked if they could take a five-minute break. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho warned there were “dangers” in halting the meeting, referring to the possible perception that members would talk about the vote in private, violating Florida’s public meetings laws. Navarro said she opposed taking a break from their “public service.” Pérez took issue with what she said, saying it was a mischaracterization of her intentions for briefly stopping the meeting. She said she hoped members would take the time to think — not talk — about who they’d vote for.

During the deliberation, Carvalho twice had to ask for more copies of the forms on which he was tallying the votes. He also needed water.

Finally, Maritere Rojas, who had been voting for Gallon throughout the process, opted to support Hantman, giving her the majority.

Hantman said she was surprised.

She said she will lobby lawmakers for additional funding for the district and conduct board meetings strictly but fairly.

“I am very, very pleased to do it,” she said. “I have the time, I have the disposition and I am very healthy, so thank God.”