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Between bites of eggs and bacon and sips of café con leche at a La Carreta restaurant in Kendall, Firpo H. Garcia answers the obvious question: Why does a 43-year-old dentist with no children want to join the Miami-Dade County School Board?
“You don't have to be a parent to be a school board member; you do have to be civic minded,” Garcia says, nodding for emphasis. He mentions the young patients in his Hialeah-based dental practice, as well as his nieces and nephews in the public school system.
Clad in a white dress shirt and an iridescent green tie, he hunches over his breakfast and lists the steps he's taken toward a September 5 victory: joining the Dade County Council Parent Teacher Association/Parent Teacher Student Association (PTA/PTSA) and serving as treasurer; attending nearly every school board meeting for the past five years; and volunteering at Kendall-area schools. He also has served on school board committees. All this time he's kept his gentle brown eyes on the prize. “I've been working toward being a school board member, learning the pros and cons of the office, for the past five years,” he says.
Garcia doesn't cut a very imposing figure. He's below average height, with a bit of a paunch around the middle. His expressions and gestures can be abrupt and jerky, and he breaks into a sweat easily. But if anything about him embodies his campaign, it's his walk: He takes short steps, he's not very graceful, and he has a slight forward lean as he plods along. He's dogged, determined. It might not be pretty, but he reaches his destination.
He failed in his first foray into public life, an attempt to unseat board member G. Holmes Braddock in 1996. Braddock's announcement this past December that he would retire as the representative from District 7, a vast swath of land that includes much of Kendall and Cutler Ridge, not only brightened Garcia's prospects, it also put into play a crucial seat on the nine-member governing body. Presently none of the four incumbents up for re-election this year -- Robert Ingram, Michael Krop, Demetrio Perez, or Betsy Kaplan -- appears likely to face serious opposition.
The winner of the District 7 contest could alter board political dynamics, especially when it comes to often-contentious matters such as approving the $3.8 billion budget, electing a chairperson, or selecting a new superintendent. Sometimes-embattled and always-befuddled superintendent Roger Cuevas's four-year stint already has exceeded the average professional life span of top administrators at large urban school districts.
Having declared his candidacy in January 1999, Garcia had, as of the last reporting date of March 31, amassed a $26,000 head start on his opponents: PTA mom Margaret Slama and realtor (and political consultant) Frank J. Cobo. Garcia estimates that, at press time, his campaign fund has grown to roughly $50,000, and that he expects to raise $100,000 before election day on September 5. (In 1996 he raised $54,000 to Braddock's $66,000.) Slama, who got on the ballot through a petition drive rather than paying the $1400 qualifying fee, is running a grassroots campaign that will likely lag far behind her competitors. The greater threat to Garcia's candidacy is probably Cobo, who, through his many political and business contacts, figures to make up at least some of the financial deficit rather quickly.
But Garcia has an ace in the hole: school board member Solomon C. Stinson. On paper it appears Stinson has contributed only $300 to Garcia's campaign coffers. But Garcia's campaign contribution forms teem with small donations from public school teachers and administrators, many of whom live and work outside District 7. As of March 31, more than 140 of his contributors were employees of the public school system he endeavors to govern.
Garcia declares this support stems from the respect he has earned during five years as a candidate/gadfly. His opponent Cobo has an alternative explanation: that Stinson, through his allies in the school leadership, has ordered (or at least encouraged) administrators to contribute to Garcia's campaign and to raise money for him from their subordinates.
Indeed, according to several current and former school district employees who declined to be named, Stinson and board candidates he favors have employed this technique in the past three election seasons (1996, 1998, 2000). Some describe the approach as noncoercive, taking place off school property before or after working hours -- which is legal. Others grumble about arm-twisting from superiors, sometimes during the workday. That would be illegal.
Garcia replies that neither he nor anyone associated with his campaign is hitting up teachers and administrators at work. Stinson, who was on vacation at press time, did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
The list of teachers buying tickets to Garcia's fundraisers is likely to increase. In mid-May the powerful United Teachers of Dade (UTD) union screened the District 7 candidates, then endorsed Garcia. According to the union, this benediction stems from Garcia's drive, intelligence, and openness to new ideas.
Several people contacted for this story, including quite a few of Garcia's colleagues in dentistry, agree with the union's assessment: Firpo is the man. But others worry that Garcia has changed his mind too often, notably on the issue of school vouchers. Even some dentists question his suitability for public office, pointing to his sometimes-paranoid actions as a member of the local dental association's governing body.