3 candidates seek to replace Tabares Hantman on school board

Miami-Dade Public Schools board members Chair Perla Tabares Hantman, left, listens to Vice Chair Dr. Steve Gallon III during a special meeting on Jan. 18. Tabares Hantman is not running for reelection.

Miami-Dade Public Schools board members Chair Perla Tabares Hantman, left, listens to Vice Chair Dr. Steve Gallon III during a special meeting on Jan. 18. Tabares Hantman is not running for reelection.

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The longtime District 4 representative for the Miami-Dade School Board announced in April she wouldn’t seek reelection, just 26 days after filing the necessary paperwork to run again.

At the time, Perla Tabares Hantman, who’s been in the role since 1996 and is the first Hispanic woman to serve as chair, said her decision to step aside was “contemplated for some time.” She wanted “to explore the next chapter of my life and enjoy time with my children and grandchildren,” according to an internal memo sent to staff on April 27.

For some, however, including one of the candidates running for the open seat, Tabares Hantman’s departure wasn’t of her own accord. Instead, some suggest there may have been a coercive effort to push her out.

Now, a businessman with ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis, the former president of the League of Women Voters and a former district teacher are running to succeed her.

READ MORE: Miami-Dade School Board flips its decision, adopts health, sex-ed textbook

Roberto Alonso, a Miami Dade College Board of Trustees member who was appointed by DeSantis in 2020 to serve a four-year term; Maribel Balbin, the CEO and president of a firm that specializes in voter engagement services, public outreach and strategic communications and government relations; and Kevin Menendez Macki, who taught at two elementary schools in the district before becoming the principal at Horeb Christian School, are running in the Aug. 23 election.

Salary for the four-year term is $46,773, according to the Miami-Dade Elections Department. School board elections are nonpartisan, meaning candidates are not identified by political party. District 4 covers a large swath of northwest Miami-Dade, including Hialeah and Miami Lakes.

“What people are saying, is that people who had usually supported [Tabares Hantman] told her they would no longer be supporting her,” Balbin told the Herald in an interview.

Balbin said she did not speak for the chair but said she believes Tabares Hantman “filed with all intentions of running,” but pulled out after learning “the establishment” would not support her. Tabares Hantman’s surprise announcement — and the reasons some people have speculated as to why — is what motivated her to run for the seat, she said.

For her part, however, Tabares Hantman has heard the rumors circulating about her decision to step down and rejects any narrative suggesting it was because of political reasons or outside pressures.

“I’m not concerned about who is running or that if I would have run [to keep the seat] I wouldn’t have won. I have a proven record that my district feels I have done a good job,” Tabares Hantman told the Herald Friday. “But I decided it was time. I don’t know why people would like to speculate.”

Moreover, she announced her intent to run again with a campaign treasurer, but “didn’t do anything else,” she said. A few weeks after announcing — and following discussions about the decision with her family — she decided she didn’t want to commit to another four years.

It’s frustrating that people would want “to second guess” the decision, she said. “I don’t play politics in any way shape or form.”

READ MORE: Miami-Dade School Board chair won’t seek reelection. DeSantis ally running for her seat

Political influences

Nevertheless, this year’s elections come as school boards and classrooms have become political battlegrounds as debates over curriculum and cultural issues, such as discussions about race and gender identity, have become talking points for conservative lawmakers in Tallahassee.

Following this year’s legislative session, DeSantis signed into law new rules that limit how race-related discussions are taught and prohibit lesson plans that discuss sexual orientation or gender identity for students in grades K-3. He also granted parents the ability to sue school districts if they believe a teacher has violated any of the laws’ provisions.

And for the first time, DeSantis last month endorsed candidates running for local school board seats to support his education agenda — and two of them are in Miami-Dade: Alonso and Monica Colucci, who is running against incumbent Marta Perez for the District 8 seat. Like Alonso, Colucci has ties to the governor, working in his executive office as the special assistant to Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, from February 2019 to August 2020.

“I’m very proud to have the endorsement of our governor and District 4 is very supportive of his agenda as well as mine and our platforms because it’s what the voices of the parents of District 4 are sharing,” Alonso, 42, said. “It’s not about politics, it’s about the families and the children and I believe that my conservative values will protect those rights of every single child” to ensure they have access to a good education and that schools won’t become “centers for indoctrination.”

Roberto Alonso is running for the District 4 seat of the Miami-Dade School Board. School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman is not seeking reelection in that district. Miami Dade College

Alonso maintains that an endorsement from DeSantis doesn’t mean his candidacy is political. Instead, he said, he has the endorsement of the people. School boards have become “too political,” he said, arguing members aren’t making the decisions that are “really based on what benefits our children.”

READ MORE: Parental rights, DeSantis talking points line up for some Miami school board candidates

Menendez Macki, for his part, said the political influences in schools today are “unprecedented.”

“I know I’m encountering more politics than expected, and I think that’s a danger to the kids and the School Board,” Menendez Macki, 41, said. “Miami-Dade has had a “long tradition” of keeping national politics out of the board’s decision-making, with Republican and Democratic members working together to reach agreements, he said. If elected, though, his focus would remain on the students, he added. (Menendez Macki has been endorsed by Manny Cid, mayor of Miami Lakes.)

Macki school board headshot
Kevin Menendez Macki is running for the Miami-Dade School Board District 4 seat, following Chair Perla Tabares Hantman’s decision to not seek reelection. Courtesy of the candidate’s official campaign Facebook page.

Balbin, 64, agreed that there’s more political influence than ever before, and it was that realization that motivated her to enter the race.

When Tabares Hantman dropped out, only Alonso had filed to run. Balbin decided “there needs to be choices for the voters. Politics shouldn’t be involved in the education of our children. We’ve never done that and it’s not what we do.”

Top issues: Safety, parental involvement, student achievement and enrollment

School safety and security remains one of the more important issues for those running in District 4.

Tackling that concern, Alonso said, means supporting the local police department as well as the district’s internal police, while also enhancing security within the schools. (Alonso was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and served as the chairman of the Miami Lakes Public Safety Committee.)

READ MORE: Miami, Broward school districts see gains in FSA results, but large numbers are not passing

Menendez Macki, though, said much of the conversation surrounding school safety focuses on external threats, such as hiring more school resource officers or how to protect the buildings. But moving forward, he argued, districts should focus on internal threats, particularly the mental health of students.

Mental health professionals are “severely understaffed,” he said. “When I speak with [counselors] they tell me that they try to get through a backlog of cases that are open, but there’s really not enough time to follow up with students during the course of the school year. That is very alarming to me.”

Some students could be falling through the cracks and could pose a threat “because they’re not being serviced properly and their needs aren’t being met,” he said. “We need to be staffing more mental health professionals in the school system.”

For her part, Balbin, agreed that safety is the “most important thing” for parents and constituents. That’s why the district must do better in communicating to parents about what’s already being done to protect students and staff.

balbin headshot.jpg
Maribel Balbin is running for the open Miami-Dade District 4 School Board seat. She faces two challengers. Maribel Balbin

But, she said, adequate compensation for teachers — and recruiting and retaining staff — is of equal importance because without staff, even the most secure buildings can only do so much to educate children. Balbin would like to see innovative ideas for attracting teachers, such as student loan assistance.

“It doesn’t matter what we can or can’t teach if we don’t have teachers,” she said.

READ MORE: Miami school district earns A rating from the state; Broward gets B

If elected, the candidates will take over a district that’s seen a decline in student enrollment in the last few years, the result of increased enrollment in charter schools and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alonso, whose platform supports school choice, said charter schools have positively impacted public schools by pushing districts “outside of the box.” Asked how he plans to balance his support of school choice while encouraging families to return to public schools, he said the district must ensure ample programming is offered so families aren’t forced to look elsewhere.

“The field of education has become competitive and charter schools have created that environment that has pushed us out of our norm,” he said. “Having programs, whether they are career-based, vocational or honors, within the district are critical and I’m going to make sure our schools have that.”

Like Alonso, Menendez Macki agreed that competition is good and said charter schools push districts to “go back to the drawing board” and get creative, he told the Miami Herald Editorial Board. But, he said, if elected, “we won’t have to worry about competition from private or charter schools. Enrollment will grow.” (Enrollment at Horeb Christian School, where he’s been principal since 2016, is up about 135%, he said in a separate interview.)

Balbin, however, told the Miami Herald Editorial Board that the district already has a variety of choice programs and the district must do better at communicating with parents what’s already offered.

“We are a top choice district [and] we have more choices for parents than any other district in the state, for certain,” she told the Editorial Board earlier this month.

Nevertheless, there are some program areas, such as those for special education and English language learners, she’d like to receive more attention and resources. If elected, she also plans to explore ways to expand the district’s summer school program options, as well as early education programs.

READ MORE: In Miami School Board District 6 race, incumbent faces challenge from Key Biscayne teacher

Candidate qualifications

Menendez Macki is the only educator in the race. He began his career at Hialeah Gardens Elementary School as a third-, fourth- and fifth-grade math and science teacher, then at Joelle C. Good as an assistant principal. (Superintendent Jose Dotres hired him for his first job, he said.)

Balbin acknowledged Menendez Macki’s experience but said for the board to function more efficiently and effectively, “a variety of experiences is helpful” and a “diversity of experience” is best.

She wouldn’t bring a background in education to the board. Instead, she’d bring her professional experience to decision-making processes, including her work as a community organizer and a public administrator. What’s more, she added, she is aware of what’s happening in the schools because her daughter and grandchildren are members of the district: as a high school teacher and elementary school students.

READ MORE: Teachers alarmed by state’s infusing religion, downplaying race in civics training

Alonso highlighted his background in developing education software and his relationship to those working in the district.

“I’m not a teacher, but I’ve trained teachers. I’m also the brother of two teachers in District 4,” he said. “I’m very connected to the teachers and I truly understand them.”

His sisters often share their frustrations and issues they’re facing with him, which enables Alonso to understand what’s going on inside the classroom, he said. Moreover, he said, the board would benefit from adding someone with business experience.

Still, Menendez Macki said he believes his experiences set him apart from his fellow candidates. He’s handled learning loss, boosted teacher morale and developed safety protocols that can scale up, he said.

“I’m the only one that’s run a multimillion-dollar school budget. Not only have I worked in education, but I have two degrees,” an undergraduate degree and a master’s in educational leadership, he said. “When you compare myself with the other candidates, it’s apples and oranges.”

District 4 candidates

Roberto Alonso

Age: 42

Occupation: Businessman, founder of Miami Lakes Cars for a Cure, vice chair of the Miami-Dade Planning Advisory Board

Experience: Built and developed educational software for two decades

Money raised: $103,767, as of July 29

Maribel Balbin

Age: 64

Occupation: CEO and president of Public Affairs Concepts, a firm that specializes in voter engagement services, public outreach and strategic communications and government relations, which she founded in 2005.

Experience: Former president of the League of Women Voters and founded the Miami Women’s Speakers Bureau in 2020.

Money raised: $23,795, as of July 29

Kevin Menendez Macki

Age: 41

Occupation: Principal, Horeb Christian School

Experience: 17-year educator, including elementary teacher at two district schools

Money raised: $25,195, as of July 29

This story was originally published July 29, 2022 8:17 PM.

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Sommer Brugal is the K-12 education reporter for the Miami Herald. Before making her way to Miami, she covered three school districts on Florida’s Treasure Coast for TCPalm, part of the USA Today Network.