Rebel with a Cause

There comes a point in every Miami-Dade school board meeting when its nine members are free to depart from the agenda and hold forth on just about any subject. They can lavish praise on a particular school, program, or individual. They can raise substantive issues. They can, and often do, use the time to reflect fondly on their own contributions to the school system and on political connections.

Or they can take the Marta Perez approach: load for bear and come out shooting. Case in point: a recent school board meeting in which Perez excoriated top administrators for their handling of a television news report about overpriced school construction contracts. The diminutive Perez's big doe eyes widened in her narrow face as she insisted that her colleagues should be "outraged" by the "unprofessional" conduct of chief facilities officer Paul Phillips and his boss, superintendent Roger Cuevas. "When this board member asked the question, “Well, who is accountable for these errors, and what happens when such errors are committed?'" she exhaled in a single high-pitched breath before providing the answer everyone knew was coming. "The answer was, no one is accountable because nothing ever happens to errors that are committed by administrators in the system. Shoulders are shrugged, “Well, we made a mistake, and that's the way it is.'"

Perez's public dressing-down of top bureaucrats, coming after months of highly publicized school district scandals, takes the pin out of fellow board member Manty Sabates Morse's hinge. In an extended harangue that borders on an emotional meltdown, Morse's voice chokes with barely withheld tears as she criticizes Perez for being too cozy with the media and the media for being too negative. "I can't sit here and accept this coming from a board member again," she wails. "We have been, for the past few months on a constant basis, I would say once a week, we have been on Channel 10 with negative news on this school system. And every one of them Dr. Perez has been involved with."

Missing from Morse's speech is a recognition of the issues Perez and the media, have brought up. In fact she directly implores one reporter to "instead of doing this to us, help us," and to concentrate on the positive side of the school district. It's this startling difference of opinion about the problems facing the system -- whether the threat comes from inefficiencies and corruption within, or from detractors pointing them out -- that often separates Perez from her colleagues.

She has a way of getting under their skins, both because of the topics she raises and the way she raises them. Her never-ending questions and criticisms at board and committee meetings inflict a constant needling pressure on the administrators responsible for running the huge system. She freely admits to using the media to get her points across and expose problems she believes aren't being adequately addressed internally. She is insistent and impatient about the reluctant pace of change in an exploding bureaucracy responsible for almost four billion dollars and more than 50,000 employees and 360,000 students.

Passionate traits have earned Perez a growing fan club among parents, teachers, and taxpayers who believe she is the only one committed to reforming a corrupt system. But even fans complain that Perez's confrontational style -- and sometimes incoherent rants -- have isolated the 49-year-old former schoolteacher from potential allies at the top of the power structure. It makes her mission that much harder to complete. "In order to get things done on the school board, you need to get votes," says a onetime campaign supporter who has watched Perez's two-year-old career on the school board. "People vote in blocs. Egos come into it. That's the way politics is. She doesn't always take advice. She's not afraid of anything. If she believes in something, she will go out there and do it.... I just don't want her to be a martyr."

Perez's detractors say she has so alienated insiders with her public criticisms that they have effectively shut her out of the system as much as possible. That's one reason she is often on the losing end of 8-1 votes. "She's got the administration so turned off they'll never do any more for her than they have to," declares recently retired board member G. Holmes Braddock. "You have to have staff on your side, because they can shoot you down more ways than you can shake a stick at. She'll end up making a big name for herself on the board but not be very effective in the final analysis."

The tenets of Perez's reform agenda are deeply rooted in a working-class, devoutly Catholic upbringing. One of Miami's many Cuban transplant success stories, Perez gives herself no slack in achieving personal goals, whether it is maintaining the svelte figure of her youth or knocking on every door in her district to get elected. "I don't like people to make excuses," she reveals. "I think you do with your life what you are given." Her standards are nearly as high for others, which sometimes makes her appear rigidly, even stubbornly attached to her notions of the ideal. As an elected member of the school board, Perez places the onus of accountability, ethics, and efficiency on district leaders. "It is possible to make Miami-Dade the jewel of education despite the diversity of the population and the fact our population is getting poorer and poorer," she observes.

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.

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."

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."

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.

Realtor associate Maria Luisa Artze, a close friend of Marta, is poking around the house, thinking about what she will say to the people who come to look. An energetic woman in her late forties, Artze's short curly brown hair is accented by matching silver-and-amber earrings and necklace. She doesn't confine her appraisal to the house. "Martica, you are getting too thin," she clucks disapprovingly at her diet-Arizona-tea-drinking friend. "You need to eat more." Artze has been offering Perez advice since the day they met, during Perez's 1996 campaign for the Westchester area community council. Both showed up at the Spanish-language radio station La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670), Artze to make an on-air pitch for a tax cap amendment, Marta to promote her candidacy. "She walked in there and said, “Oh, I'm so nervous. I don't know what to say.'" Artze remembers. "I said, “Don't worry. Be yourself. Tell them who you are and what you want to do.'"

In 1996 Marta Perez was a former schoolteacher who worked with her husband at his lucrative software company. She had just earned a doctorate in education from the University of Miami. Her dissertation chronicled the experiences of 200 of the children who arrived in a mass exodus of rafts from Cuba in 1995 and were absorbed into the Felix Varela educational centers. That work, and her involvement in an effort to erect a Varela statue, helped open doors for her on Cuban radio. Perez says the timing was right for her to jump into politics on the newly formed community councils, a zoning-to-the-people brainchild of ex-County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. "I was concerned about traffic, growth, crime," she explains. "Still am. I had no political experience whatsoever, but I had friends who were working for Alex Penelas's campaign. They told me what to do, and I read a lot of books. I was surprised to win. The other candidates had Republican backing and experience." Perez beat out a crowded field of nine.

Although Perez was new to politics, so were most of her colleagues. At age 45 she was something of the grand dame on a seven-member council filled with twentysomething men and one 67-year-old man. They made her chair of the council. Paul Angelo, the current chair of the Westchester council, says Perez set the tone for professionalism. "She laid down the groundwork," the 32-year-old computer company owner recalls. "She always put genuine feeling into her speech to explain why she voted against something. There was never any hint of being mean or vindictive. She was just there to do the job."

To Perez jumping from a neighborhood zoning board to the school board in 1998 seemed a natural progression. She had a Ph.D. in education and had been an elementary school teacher from 1974 to 1980 but left full-time teaching after the birth of her son. "Then when the kids were in school, I helped my husband in business," she says. She became the first community council member to successfully make the jump to higher political office. Others have since followed, including the newest school board member, Jacqueline Pepper. Ironically Perez had to run against the younger brother of the man who had created her community council job. Renier Diaz de la Portilla, then 27 years old, had been elected two years earlier on the strength of his powerhouse last name. He, like many other political insiders, underestimated Perez.

They shouldn't have, says political consultant Alberto Lorenzo. Since 1993 Lorenzo has been a consultant to the election campaigns of an eclectic stable of politicians, including Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, city Commissioner Johnny Winton, and state Rep. Gus Barreiro. In 1998 he took on the campaign of Marta Perez. "She ran into a lot of obstacles because she was running against an incumbent," he recalls. "She had a hard time at first getting people to take her seriously. It was hard to raise money and get doors open." Lorenzo decided Perez's best chance was a back-to-basics ground war. "Nothing is more effective than door to door," he observes. "Marta is a very hard worker. She was very determined."

Artze describes her friend as full of incredible energy. "She looks fragile, but she's not.... I remember when she was running for the school board," recalls Artze. "I said, “How can you go to 90,000 houses?' She started at five o'clock to ten o'clock every day. I would try to tempt her, invite her to dinner, but she would say, “I have to go and knock on doors.'" Shoe leather did the trick. Perez pulled an upset: 52 to 48 percent.

Artze believes Perez's tireless work ethic and uncompromising demands for reform are both her greatest strengths and, possibly, her Achilles' heel. "I'm afraid because she's only one person against a whole system and it's so," she pauses, momentarily at a loss for words. "They can destroy you if they don't like what you're doing. The school board doesn't function like other governments. There's no checks and balances. So there's nepotism, the salaries are so high, and the waste."

Outside the system's inner track, from the perspective of the parents, teachers, and others who flood her office with messages of support, Marta Perez is a hero. Maria Lage, a parent who is more than a bit scrappy herself, turned to Perez for help last year when she had problems with her son's baseball coach at Southwest High. She claims her complaints to school administrators downtown were ignored because top officials had close ties to coaches and the principal. "I tried every level," she says. "I was told Southwest was untouchable. The coach there used to brag that they were protected from very high up." Lage says she contacted Perez after seeing her on TV news denouncing a land deal that critics charged had cost the district millions more than it should have. "After what I experienced, I figured she must have a lot of courage," Lage reasons. "She found herself making a lot of enemies in the way of helping us at Southwest, but she never backed down." Lage was one of the parents who tipped authorities off that several coaches were being paid to teach phantom after-hours classes to athletes who never attended. Five coaches later were charged with felony grand theft and official misconduct, and the principal was transferred from the school.

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."

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."

Old community council ally Paul Angelo, who has kept an eye on Perez's career since she left the relatively benign world of local zoning, says he's glad Perez keeps poking her stick. He resents paying the lion's share of his property taxes to an entity that squanders it. "It's got to be a lonely, frustrating job for her," he muses. "Of course she could have become the player and been buddies with everyone and gotten things done behind closed doors, but I'm guessing the only way she can work for change is to focus attention on the problems. Marta's not crazy. She's not saying Martians are landing at Holmes Braddock High. She points out real problems. I think that's part of why she has such an active fan club out there. She'll say the emperor has no clothes. She might scream and she might cry while she's saying it, but she's the only one who will say it and be remembered for saying it."


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