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

But those who know their way around a dais believe Perez's style is hurting her ability to produce more than just sound bites. Former school board member Janet McAliley was probably the closest thing to a crusader the school board had in the Eighties and Nineties. During her sixteen-year tenure, she championed issues such as tightening the ethics code for board members and eliminating corporal punishment in the schools. But she maintains that her effectiveness was directly related to her ability to garner support from fellow members. "You have to be able to figure out a way to accomplish your goals, and I'm not sure if [Perez] is there yet," she ventures. "I like a lot of the issues she raises, but you have to do more than that. You have to figure out how to get the votes."

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, also a politician who has made good government a tenet of her agenda, thinks Perez has many good ideas and great intentions. She supported Perez's push for an ethics commission. But to be effective in politics takes something more. "What I've learned working in a big system is, you have to work with the people who work there," she says. "You can't just kind of come out swinging and say, “I'm going to clean up Dodge,' because that's not the way it works."

Perez maintains she's trying to work with people in getting her agenda across, but at some point she's just got to air the dirty laundry and hope someone will help her wash up. "I don't think I'm very popular with my colleagues, but when I ran for office I didn't say, “Vote for me because I want to be popular with my colleagues,'" she remarks. "I said I will be accountable to the community and students' education. But I think I am effective because I'm getting people to consider positions. Even though my colleagues are not happy to hear me speak, I think they listen. I try really hard to be persuasive."

Perez walks a fine line in trying to lead the school district to a new era of accountability
Steve Satterwhite
Perez walks a fine line in trying to lead the school district to a new era of accountability

Firpo Garcia, whose bid for a school board seat was stopped short last fall by the toolshed-based campaign of Demetrio J. Perez, comments that if persuasion is her game, Marta Perez has a lot to learn. She's gained a reputation among insiders as a loose cannon who's not always fully loaded, he reveals. "She tries to put her will on a lot of people, and that's not the way to get things done," Garcia notes. "A couple of board meetings ago she went off on Stinson, and she embarrassed herself. You can't micromanage that system. It's too big. I think in general it's a consensus that she fires from the hip without consulting people." Garcia predicts Perez will face well-funded opposition in the 2002 election. "I hear on the street that little Demetrio Perez is going to take a stab at her, that he is going to capitalize on his notoriety," he laughs. "I guess she's going to have to make alliances."

Fellow board member Betsy Kaplan said she supported Perez's original candidacy because she saw in her "great hope" and thought she might be an ally in supporting arts programs in the schools. And while she agrees with some of Perez's issues, Kaplan is uncomfortable with her methods. "There will be in any bureaucracy things that are inappropriate and irresponsible, but so far the things that have caused so much attention are not illegal; [chief financial officer Richard] Hinds assured me of that," she says. "Maybe people think I'm naive. There are changes that need to be made, but there are some wonderful things going on in our system." Kaplan argues that Perez may need to romance the board a little if she wants to pass complicated items. "She is well motivated, but my goal when I introduce something is to attempt to reach consensus," she explains. (Other board members contacted for this story -- Stinson, Hantman, Perez Jr., Robert Ingram, and Michael Krop -- either did not return calls or declined to comment. Newcomer Pepper, who voted in November to make Marta Perez the next chair, let her actions make her statement.)

At first glance you might expect the working-class-girl-makes-good Marta Perez to be able to count the teachers union among her allies. But United Teachers of Dade endorsed Renier Diaz de la Portilla in the last election, and Perez's opposition to certain union proposals is unlikely to engender affinity anytime soon. In particular Perez spoke against a proposal to name an elementary school after the politically influential UTD head, Pat Tornillo, Jr. "I think it's inappropriate to name schools for people still alive and in politics," Perez opines. The new school, which hasn't yet opened, now bears the name of Carlos Finlay, a doctor who made advances in yellow fever treatment. More recently, she opposed giving nine charter schools to be run by the union a break on administrative fees. Tornillo declined to comment on the UTD's relationship with Perez. "He feels it would not be appropriate at this point," spokeswoman Annette Katz comments.

Watchdog parent Lucy Margolis offers her own interpretation for the coolness between the union and Perez: that UTD has a very comfortable relationship with the district and doesn't want to shake things up. "In my ten years of following the school board, the teachers union has been perceived as being part of the status quo," she says. "My impression of what is typical is that there should be a certain element of tension between the two. When I go to school board meetings, I don't perceive disagreement."

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