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

Perez's more controversial proposals have included setting up an ethics commission and an inspector general, auditing curriculum programs, and raising performance standards for the only two employees the board has legal authority to hire and fire: the superintendent and the board attorney. Thus far none of these proposals has mustered the necessary votes, though board members and top administrators speculate that Perez has created enough public pressure to get some kind of ethics commission -- eventually.

The path has been rough from the beginning, owing in part to Perez's almost naive reliance on what she considers the overwhelming rightness of her proposals. Her second day on the job in December 1998, the eager new policymaker burst forth with a slate of reforms that seemed designed to poke at the tender underbellies of a complacent board and suggested an uncertain grasp of the subtleties of power politics. For instance, embarrassed by the political debacle the board had created a month earlier in electing a chairman, Perez proposed finding a better election method. It had taken two hours, 102 rounds of voting, and allegations of illegal vote brokering before that extraordinary horse-trading session finally ended with the re-election to a third term of board chairman Solomon Stinson. Despite the chagrin expressed by some of Perez's colleagues over that episode, they didn't appreciate a preachy bunch of reforms from the rookie. "I had my head handed to me," Perez recalls, with a slight twist of her mouth. Braddock remembers Perez "was mad as hell. I said, “Well, Marta, you can't go in there and try to take over the thing. Better to sit around and listen a few months.'"

For a while it seemed as if Perez would take that advice to sit back and play nice. Most of her actions the following year caused little heartache in her colleagues. In fact when the board split in February 1999 on the issue of whether to conduct a national search for a new board attorney to replace the retiring Phyllis Douglas, Perez voted with a coalition led by Stinson, which favored promoting his long-time ally Johnny Brown.

Watch out, Marta! Those ribbon-cutters also are handy backstabbers. Perez opens a new school building with Jacqueline Pepper and superintendent Roger Cuevas.
Steve Satterwhite
Watch out, Marta! Those ribbon-cutters also are handy backstabbers. Perez opens a new school building with Jacqueline Pepper and superintendent Roger Cuevas.
Veteran administrator-turned-politician Sol Stinson personifies the status quo Perez is fighting to change
Steve Satterwhite
Veteran administrator-turned-politician Sol Stinson personifies the status quo Perez is fighting to change

Perez seemed to reclaim her previous zeal in the early months of 2000. During several board meetings, she proposed creating stricter selection criteria for the superintendent and attorney jobs and tried to get her colleagues to agree to give formal and public evaluations to Brown and to Cuevas, whom the press had revealed received some academic degrees from institutions considered to be diploma mills. She also proposed creating an independent inspector general position similar to that of Miami-Dade County. The rest of the board poured water on those ideas as well. Undaunted, Perez later gave Cuevas his first and only formal evaluation, suggesting among other things that he beef up his academic credentials and improve communication with the public and the board.

There also were the odd victories. Her first major one came last May, when she convinced her colleagues to create an ethics task force composed of board-appointed volunteers who would recommend whether the school district needed an ethics commission. It was a soft-sell approach that worked better than Perez had expected. The fifteen task force members, who originally were skeptical of the idea, ended up recommending a commission after seeing evidence that recent multiple scandals -- from squandered dollars to sexual harassment to grade changing -- had diminished the public's trust. "There was a mind shift from “We don't need this,' to thirteen to two, “We need this,' within a few meetings," recalls Karelia Martinez-Carbonell, a doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University who observed the meetings for a thesis on school-district ethics.

But to get fellow members to support the commission idea, Perez had to make an end run around the administration. Perez claims she personally had to see to it that testimony from State Attorney's Office public-corruption guru Joe Centorino was copied to each board member. She also recalls turning down an offer from top administrators to help her craft an ethics proposal that would be more likely to fly. "The superintendent and [deputy superintendent Carol] Cortes offered to help me pass it but watered down and vanilla," Perez asserts. "I said, “I want a commission with teeth.'"

The board accepted the report. But not without strenuous objections raised by several members who were offended by the implications. "The thing that really concerns me about an ethics commission," Stinson remarked later, "sometimes what's ethical for one person is somewhat unethical for the other."

Following up on that small victory, Perez came back with a proposal to draft actual bylaws for an ethics commission, the first step toward creating one. She took no chances, stacking the public speakers list with the persuasive likes of Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan, county Mayor Alex Penelas, and Centorino. Grudgingly the board voted in November to let Kogan and others further study the idea and come back with recommendations -- in June 2001.

A month later some of the board members paid Perez back for dragging them through the court of public opinion by "forgetting" to invite her to a schmooze session for Hispanic educators with the soon-to-be president of the United States, George W. Bush, in Austin, Texas. From Miami-Dade went the other three Republican Hispanic school board members (Morse, Demetrio Perez, Jr., and current chair Perla Tabares Hantman), plus Florida International University president Modesto Maidique, and Cuban American National Foundation treasurer Feliciano Foyo. "Isn't that amazing," Perez snaps. "Hispanic educators were invited on a one-day charter to Texas. The three other Hispanic school board members went. I'd like to speak to Bush about education. I'm a Republican, and I voted for him."

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