Chairman of the Board

Folks don't know much about school board chairman Solomon Stinson, but they do know this: Don't cross him

That left a substantial amount of unspent funds, which Stinson parceled out to various nonprofit organizations, mostly within Miami's black community: ten churches, including New Birth Baptist Church ($10,000), Mount Tabor Baptist Church, where Stinson is an officer ($15,000), and Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia ($10,000); the Coalition to Improve Northwest Dade ($10,000); 500 Role Models of Excellence, a group founded by Frederica Wilson ($5,000); and the Gwen Cherry Park Foundation ($10,000).

Like most successful Miami-Dade politicians, he received numerous large donations from school board contractors and prospective contractors. Construction, health care, food service, computer, and school uniform companies made contributions to his campaign. Under Florida law individuals or companies are not allowed to give more than $500 each; however, health care giant Humana gave Stinson's campaign five $500 checks -- one each from the company's Delray Beach, Lantana, Davie, Pembroke Pines, and West Palm Beach offices.

Other candidates in school board races and throughout the Miami-Dade County polity routinely accept large amounts from vendors. Stinson's fundraising is distinguished by the hundreds of smaller contributions from school district administrators and teachers who attended or bought tickets (for as little as fifteen dollars) to his fundraising events.

One school employee characterized a donation to Stinson's campaign as "cheap insurance" for one's job security. District employees contribute to many candidates' campaigns, opines Patrick Snay, who left the district in 1998. "This has been going on for at least ten years," he says. "Tickets are sold by the region offices all the time. People knew it would be in their best interest to buy them, and to be on that [campaign contribution] list."

"I know [Stinson] puts pressure on teachers to contribute to his campaign," admits Helen Williams, a former middle-school English teacher in the district who was fired this past year. "When I was teaching, many people said, 'You know you'd better contribute.'"

"One thing about Sol, he was always candid with you," says a faculty member who asked not to be named. "His position was, 'You either back me or payback is hell.'"

Sometimes the solicitations were explicit. After it became clear that Stinson would be unopposed in 1998, his top priority became protecting the five-vote coalition necessary to preserve his chairmanship. One beneficiary of his efforts was Renier Diaz de la Portilla, a board member who had supported Stinson's bid for the chair in 1996 and 1997. In late summer 1998, Diaz de la Portilla's Republican opponent, Marta Perez, was nearly matching his fundraising efforts.

Stinson enthusiastically backed Diaz de la Portilla, and not just with moral support. Two sources contacted for this story contend that high-ranking school district administrators attended at least one meeting with Stinson that summer, in which he asked them to raise money for Diaz de la Portilla.

The sources' knowledge of the meeting is secondhand; neither one attended. One claims to have overheard an administrator describing the meeting. The other, a school employee, confirms receiving a call at work afterward from an immediate superior soliciting a campaign contribution for Diaz de la Portilla. "I guarantee you that meeting took place," the latter source states.

If such a phone call were made by a school employee, on school grounds, on school time, it would likely violate Florida elections law, which prohibits candidates from using public employees to campaign for them during working hours. The same law bars candidates or campaign workers from soliciting contributions in a public building.

If true it would not be the first time that a Stinson backer has broken the law. In the 1996 campaign, Eddie Pearson, then a region superintendent, solicited donations for Stinson's campaign at a principals' meeting at West Kendall's Calusa Elementary School. Pearson was slapped with a $500 fine for committing this misdemeanor, and subsequently promoted to Stinson's old job as deputy superintendent for school operations.

Diaz de la Portilla could not be reached for comment for this story. His campaign finance reports show that he did receive a major boost of cash at the last minute. In the weeks immediately preceding the September 1 Republican primary, Diaz de la Portilla raised $109,465 -- more than he had during the rest of his campaign. Of that total Diaz de la Portilla loaned himself $50,000. The other $59,465 largely came from ticket sales to a fundraising event at the Radisson Hotel.

School district personnel were out in force at that fundraiser, much as they had been at Stinson's shindigs. Those attending, or at least buying tickets to, the Diaz de la Portilla event included downtown administrators, school police officers, regional administrators, and principals.

Still, the extra funds were for naught: Marta Perez edged out Diaz de la Portilla in the primary.

Chairman Stinson runs the monthly school board meetings in a style that is sometimes curt, even abusive, to the public, staff, and fellow board members. His control of the agenda and his colleagues' comments is constantly felt. When the board discusses how to spend its $3.5 billion budget, Stinson shapes the debate.

"The chair is like all other pre-strong mayor positions: It's defined by the person who holds it," says political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "You wouldn't know it by the city charter, but when Maurice Ferre was mayor of Miami, he ran that city. When Arthur Teele was chairman of the Dade County Commission, he appeared to be as powerful then as [Executive Mayor] Alex [Penelas] is now."

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