Tonight, at her private school in the Design District, Republican mega-donor and Miami philanthropist Leila Centner is hosting a forum for Esteban "Steve" Bovo, who is running as the conservative candidate in the nonpartisan race for Miami-Dade County mayor.
The event will transpire over vociferous objections from some parents, who don't believe Centner Academy is an appropriate venue to host a political event. According to emails obtained by New Times, at least four parents also criticized Centner for using the school's email list to send them an invite to the event.
Rather than address the parents' concerns, Centner dug in her heels and asserted her power as the owner of Centner Academy and the building that houses the school at 4136 N. Miami Ave. On October 20, she responded in an email to a dad who criticized the choice to hold the event on campus.
"I would like to say that this is not a school event," Centner wrote. "This is an event I am hosting for the public in my building that I own after hours. Please do not tell me what types of events I can host in my own building after hours."
Centner signed off by asserting that the Bovo forum is a chance for parents to ask her preferred candidate direct questions in order to make an informed voting decision.
"It is an exciting opportunity for people to ask questions to one of the people running for Mayor, whether they like him or not," she wrote. "No one is being forced to attend and again, this is not during school hours. If you don't want to go, simply do not attend."
Centner Academy, which accepts admissions from preschool to eighth grade, opened last fall. It's branded as "the first happiness school in the U.S.," with a curriculum that stresses meditation, sustainability, and emotional intelligence.
In the emails obtained by New Times, Centner never disclosed to parents that, earlier this month, she donated $50,000 to A Better Miami Dade, an electioneering communications organization backing Bovo.
Campaign-finance data reveals that Centner and her husband, David, have also kicked in $361,800 to the Republican National Committee and several GOP state executive committees and given the maximum $5,600 to President Donald Trump's reelection campaign this election cycle.
Reached for comment, Centner responded via email that she didn't disclose her donation to Bovo because she didn't want to sway parents' opinions or influence their votes.
"The intention was to give the candidate an opportunity to answer questions in an unfiltered environment, so I wanted to remain neutral," she wrote, adding, "The contribution I made was at a previous event hosted by [Gov. Ron DeSantis]."
So far, Centner said, she has received about 40 RSVPs for the Bovo forum, with about half coming from outside the school.
The parents who objected to Centner's use of the school's email list declined to be interviewed by New Times because they fear retaliation against their children. But in one email, a mother who sends her kids to the school admonished Centner for contacting her with a political message.
"You have no right to use my email address or any other parent's email address, which your school obtained as a result of my child and other children attending your school and was for the purpose of communication of the educational needs of the children between the teachers, principals, and the parents of the children," the Centner Academy parent wrote. "Please do not use my email address for personal matters or to espouse your political views, which have nothing to do with educating the children."
Some parents also pointed out that Bovo's opponent, Daniella Levine Cava — a Democrat who recently received an endorsement from Hillary Clinton — did not merit a similar invitation. Centner told New Times that she does not have direct contact with Levine Cava's campaign but that a parent at the school is trying to set something up.
"We have a parent who is working to bring in Daniella Levine Cava, Steve Bovo's opponent, and I welcome that," Centner wrote in her email. "We are looking for constructive conversation and healthy debate."
She added that she has always envisioned Centner Academy as a gathering place for thoughtful, inspiring leaders from a wide range of fields.
"My vision encompasses ongoing education not just for children, but also for parents, teachers, and the greater community," Centner said. "We are excited to foster a healthy discussion and debate — regardless of political lines — during the event on Tuesday. Listening to candidates speak is about education and learning."
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