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With election wins and appointments, DeSantis expands his influence over Florida's largest school districts

South Florida Sun Sentinel

DeSantis allies and appointees are replacing longtime incumbents on the Miami-Dade and Broward County School Boards — positioning them to advance conservative policy priorities in some of the state's most Democratic-leaning counties.

For months, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has been upending the debates happening at local school board meetings. Now he’s helping change who sits on those boards.

DeSantis has a lot more power over local education policy after last month’s elections. His allies and appointees have taken seats on the boards of the state’s largest school districts and the new members are well positioned to implement the governor's conservative agenda in public schools.

On the Sunday before Election Day, Governor Ron DeSantis held a rally in Doral with school board candidates — which is notable, because these positions are nonpartisan. At least officially.

“We want to make sure kids understand the truth about our country,” DeSantis told the crowd at a firefighters union hall in the Miami suburb. “We want to make sure that they understand American civics and understand that our rights come from God, not from the government.”

Public schools are also officially secular, but DeSantis referenced scripture, Ephesians 6:10-18, and framed this moment as a Biblical battle against evil. “Get ready to go put on that full armor of God and stand firm for the truth,” DeSantis said as the crowd cheered.

The 30 school board candidates across the state who DeSantis endorsed ahead of the August 23rd elections support his agenda for limiting conversations about race, gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.

Outside the rally in Doral, a few dozen people came to protest, calling DeSantis a Christian nationalist and a theocrat.

“Show me what theocracy looks like!” a protest leader chanted. “That is what theocracy looks like!” the group replied.

A protester named Avani rallies the crowd gathered outside the Metro-Dade Firefighters Local 1403 in Doral, where Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a campaign event for school board candidates he endorsed.
Carl Juste / Miami Herald
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A protester named Avani rallies the crowd gathered outside the Metro-Dade Firefighters Local 1403 in Doral, where Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a campaign event for school board candidates he endorsed.

A public health worker named Avani was among the protesters. She asked WLRN not to use her last name because she’s trans and says she’s afraid of being targeted.

He wants to make sure that the schools are basically a mouthpiece for his agenda,” Avani said, “Saying his talking points, rather than having more diverse and critical viewpoints. And being able to learn about our true history, being able to learn about LGBTQ history, African American history, Latino history, and really being able to speak freely and openly and to think critically.”

Majority of DeSantis-endorsed school board candidates win their races

On Election Day, the majority of DeSantis' picks won their races — including Monica Colucci in Miami-Dade County, the largest district in the state.

Colucci is a 26-year teacher and a political newcomer — but she got significant support from Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez. The women are friends from college and Colucci worked as a special assistant to Nuñez in the DeSantis administration from 2019 to 2020.

“She's a mom, she's a wife, she's an educator, but most importantly a woman of faith,” Nuñez said, speaking at Colucci’s election night watch party at a ballroom on Calle Ocho.

Nuñez appeared in campaign ads with Colucci, sat for media interviews with her and contributed more than $350,000 to a consulting firm working for Colucci’s campaign, according to the Associated Press.

“Having her on the school board is going to lead us to a path where we're going to provide a better quality education for our children. We're going to provide parental rights — making sure that they have the ultimate say. We're going to educate and not indoctrinate our students,” Nuñez said as the crowd cheered.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, right, speaks during Monica Colucci’s election victory party at the Renaissance Ballrooms in West Miami on Aug. 23, 2022. Colucci, who was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, beat longtime Miami-Dade County School Board Member Marta Pérez in the District 8 race.
Alie Skowronski / Miami Herald
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Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, right, speaks during Monica Colucci’s election victory party at the Renaissance Ballrooms in West Miami on Aug. 23, 2022. Colucci, who was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, beat longtime Miami-Dade County School Board Member Marta Pérez in the District 8 race.

Colucci ran on her experience as an educator – and on a pledge to get social and cultural issues out of the classroom.

“I think that the message resonated,” Colucci said. “Parental rights, curriculum transparency. And just the fact that we need to go back to just teaching kids what they need to know — reading, writing, math, science, social studies.”

Like others endorsed by DeSantis, Colucci has claimed that schools are forcing a liberal ideology on students. Although in her more than two decades in the classroom, Colucci said she never saw her colleagues indoctrinate kids.

“My colleagues that I've taught with? No, I have not,” she said. “Thank goodness.”

But it was that message that helped Colucci oust a 24-year incumbent on the Miami-Dade County School Board —Marta Pérez.

“It was a campaign based out of anger — anger! The voters were angry at me,” Pérez said. “ 'You're a communist. You're a traitor!' And things like that. And all that Colucci had to do was say, 'I'm endorsed by the governor.'”

Pérez was born in Cuba and has been a conservative voice on the school board. She voted against a plan to improve how Miami-Dade schools teach students about racism. And she voted to toss out health textbooks, after parents protested the chapters on sex and reproduction.

But Pérez says she was challenged from the right because she voted for a mask mandate back in August of 2021.

“My sin was to extend the masks because the teachers begged for it,” she said. “Does the punishment fit the crime? I guess. I don't know. It's remarkable. And it's dangerous.”

Another DeSantis-endorsed candidate won his race for the Miami-Dade County School Board — Roberto Alonso.

Roberto Alonso, left, is congratulated by Manny Diaz Jr., the Florida Commissioner of Education, during an election night party at Paraiso Tropical in Hialeah. Alonso, who was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will replace longtime Miami-Dade County School Board Member Perla Tabares Hantman, who chose not to run for reelection.
Jose A. Iglesias / Miami Herald
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Roberto Alonso, left, is congratulated by Manny Diaz Jr., the Florida Commissioner of Education, during an election night party at Paraiso Tropical in Hialeah. Alonso, who was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will replace longtime Miami-Dade County School Board Member Perla Tabares Hantman, who chose not to run for reelection.

Alonso will replace Perla Tabares Hantman, the board’s longest serving member and its current chair, who is also a Cuban American conservative. She decided to retire rather than run against a challenger.

Pérez says even the members who weren’t on the ballot this year got the message. “I think some of the board members are petrified,” Pérez said. “And they will vote in lockstep. Because they're going to be so afraid that the same thing would happen to them.”

Majority of Broward school board is now made up of DeSantis appointees

Meanwhile in Broward County, DeSantis transformed the board in charge of the state’s second largest school district — without having to win a single election.

DeSantis suspended four sitting board members after a statewide grand jury found evidence of mismanagement.

Now, a majority of the board is made up of DeSantis appointees — at least for the time being.

Four of the five board members appointed by DeSantis won’t be in office for long; their terms expire in November. But Board Member Kevin Tynan says they’re focused on making changes quickly.

“I'd be remiss if I — like my colleagues being sworn in today — don’t thank the governor for his trust in our abilities to try and effectuate change even in the limited time that we're here,” Tynan said after taking his oath of office.

The five DeSantis appointees have already demonstrated their power as a voting bloc. In a five to four vote, they stopped Board Member Lori Alhadeff from becoming chair.

Instead, DeSantis appointee Torey Alston was unanimously elected chair. Alston is a product of Broward County Public Schools and served as a student advisor to the school board when he was at Blanche Ely High School.

 Broward County's newest school board members were sworn in on Tuesday. They are, from left, Kevin Tynan, Ryan Reiter, Torey Alston and Manuel “Nandy” A. Serrano.
Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun Sentinel
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Broward County's newest school board members were sworn in on Tuesday. They are, from left, Kevin Tynan, Ryan Reiter, Torey Alston and Manuel “Nandy” A. Serrano.

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco says she’s ready to work with the new members, despite what she called “interference” from the governor.

“You say you guys have a moral compass, you have a passion, you have a heart. That you’re really going to truly do something,” Fusco told the new members. “I heard all four of you say — the number one thing… why you’re sitting there was for the student. I’m gonna hope you’re not sitting there for the governor.”

Asked what expectations the governor has for him, Alston demurred.

“Partisanship must remain at the door. So as chair of the board, that's what I've talked about. There's no partisanship in education,” Alston said. “I can tell you that we're going to continue to work together as a reform board.”

In fact, there’s plenty of partisanship in education right now. And DeSantis has shown there’s a lot to gain by ratcheting up the politics of public schools and picking fights about race, identity and history.

For one, a rare opportunity to advance conservative policy priorities in one of the state’s most Democratic-leaning counties.
Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.
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