By Michael E. Miller
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Speaking in a kindly, patronizing tone from the Mister Rogers school of audience persuasion, Herrman mentioned that he'd talked all this stuff over with members of the PTSA and they were supportive. He didn't mention that the talk occurred a few days earlier over dinner at a local Steak-and-Ale, courtesy of Chancellor Academies. He also praised a five-hour bus trip several teachers had taken (again, paid for by Chancellor) to observe a converted charter school in Polk County. However, a teacher who'd gone on the field trip later wrote an anonymous letter to the Miami Herald claiming the whole thing was mostly a sham. "We never went into, nor had time to see, a classroom, [never] talk[ed] to a classroom teacher or to parents [at the Polk County school]," the letter lamented. "I asked to e-mail a teacher and was told that only the office staff had e-mail addresses. The first [place] we went to see was a Chancellor Academy School and [we] spent most of our time [there]." The point was that although Chancellor has done several start-up charter schools, it hasn't yet converted an existing school.
One Snapper Creek teacher who spoke to New Times on condition of anonymity confirmed the details in the letter are accurate. The teacher further alleged that school administrators were outraged when they saw the letter in the Herald, and that assistant principal Maria Elena Hernandez corralled those who'd gone on the trip and asked them to write a response. "They wrote that letter and then went from teacher to teacher and had each sign it to send back to the Miami Herald," the teacher said.
But little of this interior drama trickled out to the parents at the meeting. Onstage, Ken Delisi, a young instructor at Snapper Creek who teaches students with special needs, expressed his reasons for supporting the change. He said he doesn't trust the school district but does trust his principal. "If we can have the freedom we have right now under Mr. Herrman, rather than the nightmare of principals at some of the other schools, then I as a teacher am sold." A few other teachers remarked that they were willing to try anything that would reduce class size.
Suddenly school board member Marta Perez, who represents Snapper Creek in District 8 (parts of Kendall, Westchester, and Sweetwater), stalked to the front of the room to deliver a characteristically impassioned plea. "I've found that whenever someone wants to sell you something, they say there's an urgency," she shrilled. "What I would like you to do is to have the other side represented, the district to come and explain [the other side] to you."
It was a good point, but her strident tone had an unintended effect. To the roomful of parents who seemed to trust Herrman and their children's teachers, she sounded like a disgruntled politician trying to protect her turf. With this, the battle for the hearts and minds of Snapper Creek's parents had begun. Would they choose the devil they knew, or the one they did not?
Fast-forward to another parent meeting in the same place a week later. It's the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a week in which then-superintendent Roger Cuevas had narrowly avoided being fired (he managed to last a little longer). The day before, on September 12, 32 teachers had voted, with 67 percent going for conversion. Parent Addys Alvarez told New Times some of the teachers told her and others they'd felt "compelled" to keep their misgivings about the conversion to themselves. "They were expressing confusion, frustration, and [a sense that there was] deceit -- they were very scared about job security," Alvarez recalls. "A lot of them don't know what the future [would be]. They just blindly followed [Herrman]."
Herrman calls such accusations "hurtful." "If there's any evidence, then it's worth looking into," he allows. "But unless you can say, “This happened on this date with this person,' then ..." he finishes the sentence with a shrug.
Several teachers who asked not to be identified described the atmosphere of the school before the vote as "hostile" -- with teachers divided on the charter issue and a full-court sales pitch by the UTD and Herrman beating against their honest doubts. "You were made to feel that if you were against it, you were against Mom and apple pie," grumbles one teacher. "The message was how dare you go against this." Another teacher claims that Herrman removed from teachers' mailboxes an anonymous critical letter asking the administration to postpone the vote. (Some teachers wanted questions answered more thoroughly.) Herrman says that it is standard practice that all notices placed in teacher mailboxes be initialed by an administrator, and any anonymous letters would have been removed. "It's not for screening purposes," he asserts. "Mailboxes are for school business and we just don't want them to be used for ads or that kind of thing."
Teachers also describe a private meeting held by the UTD and Herrman at Snapper in which many vague promises were made to the teachers that weren't aired in the open parent meetings. None were actually written down, but a veteran teacher recalls: "[UTD executives] [Merri] Mann and [Pat] Tornillo were talking bonuses and stock options. As soon as they said that, I saw the dollar signs come in [teachers'] eyes. They don't realize what this would do to the curriculum. It would put a price tag ... on every child's head."