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She doesn't look like a Spanish knight beset by noble delusions, yet ever since Rosa Kasse decided to go jousting with political giants, even her friends have warned her to watch out for windmills. But Kasse, a 56-year-old Democrat originally from the Dominican Republic, believes she has a shot at unseating Republican state Rep. Ralph Arza from his District 102 seat come November.
Arza currently sits on the House Education Appropriations Committee, and since being elected in 2000 has made himself the go-to guy for education issues for both the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and Gov. Jeb Bush. He is also a former high school football coach who relishes a good contest, so Kasse had better learn how to block and tackle. Mostly people advise her to punt.
Kasse is known primarily as founder and president of the Hispanic Coalition, a fifteen-year-old social-service agency that offers help with immigration, employment, and family issues. Why would a political novice who runs an agency that depends on government grants want to pit herself against a powerful state legislator? Basically, Kasse maintains, she's just an angry constituent tired of watching her representative use his office primarily to feed his own ambitions.
She's particularly unhappy about Arza's public-education battles, which have tended to favor private-sector solutions. "I believe Ralph Arza is trying to destroy our public schools," she says. "All his actions are for him to make money, but he's not looking after the well-being of people in District 102."
Arza: "I regret that she feels like that. I think I work very hard and I'm very focused in my district."
Kasse begs to disagree, citing two consulting gigs Arza picked up this past summer after taking leave from his $57,375 position as a history teacher at Miami High. As reported by the Herald, Miami City Manager Joe Arriola in September handed him a no-bid contract worth $3500 per month (not to exceed $25,000 over six months) to serve as a consultant on education matters. About the same time Arza also received an invite from Florida International University to be a "visiting lecturer" for nine months. Fee: $23,000. (Arza makes $28,000 per year as a legislator.)
It's hard to believe, Kasse argues, that these institutions are paying a former history teacher who (according to a WPLG-TV report last year) missed 120 out of 212 workdays in 2002 solely for his education expertise. With an attendance record like that, Kasse is not sure the school district was paying Arza for his education expertise either. She's adamant that a legislator should not be paid as a consultant when the arrangement could force him to choose between representing the people who elected him and the people signing his paycheck. "He has to make a decision," she asserts. "He cannot be with God and the devil at the same time. He's a legislator or he's a lobbyist. Not both. He should resign one or the other."
The contracts Arza has with the City of Miami and FIU aren't actually lobbying contracts, but it's worth noting that in past legislative sessions he has worked closely (so far unsuccessfully) with Miami officials to pass legislation allowing municipalities to convert public schools within their borders to city-run charter schools.
Arza maintains there is no conflict because he cleared the contract with the House counsel, and his work with the city is a short-term, one-time deal. "It's no closer [to a conflict] than me being a teacher or like Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall or Frederica Wilson being [school district] administrators," he offers. "Before I got elected, there were a lot of legislators working in the system and it wasn't a problem."
When he was first elected, Arza recalls, former Miami-Dade Public Schools superintendent Roger Cuevas allocated another teacher to team-teach with him. Arza would then videotape his portion of the lessons from Tallahassee. Nonetheless he decided to take a leave from the school district. That's when Miami Mayor Manny Diaz asked him to help formulate an ambitious plan to take control of the educational destiny of his city. A key element in attracting residents back to Miami's redeveloping urban core, the plan includes partnering with industry and even with the City of Key Biscayne to build charter schools, provide supplemental education services in city parks, and other initiatives. "The schools in the city are 30 to 40 percent below capacity, and he's got 35,000 [housing] units coming on line in the next few years," Arza says. "If he doesn't change the schools, people won't move back into the city. He sees that his city will die unless this changes."
Arza told him, fine, but I have a wife and five kids to support. So Arriola got him a contract and Arza began bustling about, advising and seeking local support for Diaz's ideas. He ferried developer (and school district oversight board member) Ed Easton and the mayor of Key Biscayne to see charter schools in Doral to get them interested in a joint project with the city. He proposed a city-school quality board that would have residents assess the educational needs of each city school. "I only got about $18,000," Arza says, "and I think I worked like eight months and they paid me for six. We are part-time legislators and we all have to make a living. That's just the reality. My whole thing is if you're going to take a shot, be fair. Don't try to single me out because you're trying to get elected."