Rebel with a Cause

As Marta Perez has discovered, the school board can be a very lonely place when you're trying to be a reformer

There comes a point in every Miami-Dade school board meeting when its nine members are free to depart from the agenda and hold forth on just about any subject. They can lavish praise on a particular school, program, or individual. They can raise substantive issues. They can, and often do, use the time to reflect fondly on their own contributions to the school system and on political connections.

Or they can take the Marta Perez approach: load for bear and come out shooting. Case in point: a recent school board meeting in which Perez excoriated top administrators for their handling of a television news report about overpriced school construction contracts. The diminutive Perez's big doe eyes widened in her narrow face as she insisted that her colleagues should be "outraged" by the "unprofessional" conduct of chief facilities officer Paul Phillips and his boss, superintendent Roger Cuevas. "When this board member asked the question, Well, who is accountable for these errors, and what happens when such errors are committed?'" she exhaled in a single high-pitched breath before providing the answer everyone knew was coming. "The answer was, no one is accountable because nothing ever happens to errors that are committed by administrators in the system. Shoulders are shrugged, Well, we made a mistake, and that's the way it is.'"

Perez's public dressing-down of top bureaucrats, coming after months of highly publicized school district scandals, takes the pin out of fellow board member Manty Sabates Morse's hinge. In an extended harangue that borders on an emotional meltdown, Morse's voice chokes with barely withheld tears as she criticizes Perez for being too cozy with the media and the media for being too negative. "I can't sit here and accept this coming from a board member again," she wails. "We have been, for the past few months on a constant basis, I would say once a week, we have been on Channel 10 with negative news on this school system. And every one of them Dr. Perez has been involved with."

Perez needs a little help from her friends, such as former school principal Cindy Morgan, who recently signed on as Perez's chief of staff
Steve Satterwhite
Perez needs a little help from her friends, such as former school principal Cindy Morgan, who recently signed on as Perez's chief of staff

Missing from Morse's speech is a recognition of the issues Perez and the media, have brought up. In fact she directly implores one reporter to "instead of doing this to us, help us," and to concentrate on the positive side of the school district. It's this startling difference of opinion about the problems facing the system -- whether the threat comes from inefficiencies and corruption within, or from detractors pointing them out -- that often separates Perez from her colleagues.

She has a way of getting under their skins, both because of the topics she raises and the way she raises them. Her never-ending questions and criticisms at board and committee meetings inflict a constant needling pressure on the administrators responsible for running the huge system. She freely admits to using the media to get her points across and expose problems she believes aren't being adequately addressed internally. She is insistent and impatient about the reluctant pace of change in an exploding bureaucracy responsible for almost four billion dollars and more than 50,000 employees and 360,000 students.

Passionate traits have earned Perez a growing fan club among parents, teachers, and taxpayers who believe she is the only one committed to reforming a corrupt system. But even fans complain that Perez's confrontational style -- and sometimes incoherent rants -- have isolated the 49-year-old former schoolteacher from potential allies at the top of the power structure. It makes her mission that much harder to complete. "In order to get things done on the school board, you need to get votes," says a onetime campaign supporter who has watched Perez's two-year-old career on the school board. "People vote in blocs. Egos come into it. That's the way politics is. She doesn't always take advice. She's not afraid of anything. If she believes in something, she will go out there and do it.... I just don't want her to be a martyr."

Perez's detractors say she has so alienated insiders with her public criticisms that they have effectively shut her out of the system as much as possible. That's one reason she is often on the losing end of 8-1 votes. "She's got the administration so turned off they'll never do any more for her than they have to," declares recently retired board member G. Holmes Braddock. "You have to have staff on your side, because they can shoot you down more ways than you can shake a stick at. She'll end up making a big name for herself on the board but not be very effective in the final analysis."

The tenets of Perez's reform agenda are deeply rooted in a working-class, devoutly Catholic upbringing. One of Miami's many Cuban transplant success stories, Perez gives herself no slack in achieving personal goals, whether it is maintaining the svelte figure of her youth or knocking on every door in her district to get elected. "I don't like people to make excuses," she reveals. "I think you do with your life what you are given." Her standards are nearly as high for others, which sometimes makes her appear rigidly, even stubbornly attached to her notions of the ideal. As an elected member of the school board, Perez places the onus of accountability, ethics, and efficiency on district leaders. "It is possible to make Miami-Dade the jewel of education despite the diversity of the population and the fact our population is getting poorer and poorer," she observes.

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