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

Manty Sabates Morse, who is chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, acknowledges the tension between her and Perez. "It might sound most of the time I'm against her, but I'm not," she argues. "It's not that I'm against some of the things. It's the way it's been brought about. It made it sound like we're unethical, and we're not." Morse also doesn't appreciate Perez's public treatment of the administration. "There are ways to bring things out that are not so shocking and so offensive to the administrators," she says. "The way she has gone about it, she's hurting people who have been in the system for years. Maybe she needs a little more understanding about our roles."

The district's number two man, deputy superintendent Henry Fraind, believes the system will address the ethics issue somehow. "She's going to get her way on that," he predicts. "I think we will get there, some form of ethics. I think we all recognize it's motherhood and apple pie. It gets down to how do you want to proceed, once we agree to what ethics means and how we should conduct ourselves." Fraind claims to admire Perez for her tenacity and personal strength, even though he doesn't agree with her on some issues. "Really, deep down inside, Dr. Perez means well," he chuckles. "She'd be a good boxer. She can dance, she can hit, and she can take a punch."

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
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

The corner office Perez occupies on the third floor of the school district's main administrative building on Biscayne Boulevard does have a comfortable apple-pie feel to it, filled with overstuffed chairs, throw rugs, family pictures, and an ancient hem-marking tool that reminds her of her mother, a dressmaker. What doesn't seem to fit is the large piece of white poster board taped to the front of the wooden desk. Screaming off the white background in red, yellow, and black marker is a handprinted mantra that reads, Reform Reform Reform. "So I don't forget," Perez explains.

Perez doesn't look like a fighter. Large dark eyes stare out of a delicately-featured oval face framed by salon-perfected reddish-blond hair. Her collagen-enhanced lips smile easily, even compulsively. When she's relaxed there's no hint of the high-strung nervous flutters or the face flushes that appear during stressful moments on the dais. Even wearing black slip-on shoes with three-inch platform heels, Marta's slight figure hardly looks imposing (she claims to be five foot two).

Walking into the auditorium of Coral Park High on a Tuesday morning, she could easily melt into the crowd of students finding their seats -- except that she tends more toward the tailored end of the dress code than they do. And she's flanked by the school's principal and a regional director for the walk to the stage, while teachers are busy shushing their charges. "Which is the best school in Dade County?" Perez works the crowd with a practiced line when her turn to speak comes. They know a pep-rally prompt when they hear one and respond with cheers and whistles. "Who is the best principal?" she pauses just long enough to create suspense. "Mr. [William] Machado!" This elicits a predictable mixture of cheers, claps, and boos. Perez is just here to give a little extra sparkle to the award the school has won because these students improved Coral Park's ranking on the state's most recent measure of worthiness, the FCAT.

The ceremony is over in fifteen minutes, and Perez scoots out the door, chatting briefly in Spanish with people who stop her in the hall. "I like to get out of there quickly," she confides. "The principals get nervous, and I want the students to get back to class." Perez acknowledges the reality of being an elected official in one of the nine little kingdoms in the Miami-Dade County public school district. Board members are treated like royalty when they visit, but it's best they don't overstay their welcome.

Perez climbs into a black Mercedes sports sedan, with a "Support Education" license plate and a Deepak Chopra tape in the deck. It's just a few miles to her Westchester home, which is where she goes to work between appointments. "That's the advantage of living in your district," she chirps. The house on SW Fourth Street is pastel yellow with white trim, has four bedrooms, a pool, and a batting cage well used by her son Rene, now a student at Notre Dame. Rene and his younger sister Virginia, a student at Florida International University, were just toddlers when the family moved into the neighborhood. The house quickly became Marta's base camp for social gatherings, neighborhood strategy meetings, and political campaigns for Community Council Area 10 and the school board. "Anytime a teacher wants to talk to me, or a parent wants to complain about something they don't want to say over the phone, they can come here to my house," Perez says.

Right now she is trying to sell her house. It's too expensive to maintain since she recently ended her 27-year marriage to Rene Perez, a former software company owner. It's not something she likes to talk about. "It's not a happy ending," she says, looking away. "The kids were upset. At least they are grown up now." It remains to be seen whether the divorce will affect Perez's political future. She was once one of the wealthiest members on the board, with a $3.3 million net worth largely from real estate holdings and her husband's business. When she ran for her District 8 seat two years ago, a $40,000 loan from her husband made up a sizable chunk of the money she raised. She makes about $34,000 per year as a board member.

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