Herald picks Rywell, Zapata, Navarro, Lawther for Miami-Dade School Board

These are trying times for the Miami-Dade school district, its superintendent and its governing nine-member School Board. As they struggle with the impact of COVID-19 and the question of how to reopen schools in the fall, there will be more upheaval to the way things used to be. In an unprecedented scenario, three incumbents, Martin Karp, Lawrence Feldman and Susie V. Castillo, have stepped down, opening the door for real change on the board.

And while board member Steve Gallon III had no opposition and was automatically reelected, incumbent Lubby Navarro has two challengers. By the end of election season, there will be at least three new members seated on the dais, a noteworthy changing of the guard. Our recommendations show a healthy mix of a familiar face with countywide elected experience and new voices that will add heft to the Board:

DISTRICT 3

The voters have an embarrassment of strong candidates to fill the seat held by Martin Karp, who served on the School Board for 16 years.

The candidates for this district — which goes from North Miami Beach east to northernmost Aventura, south to encompass Miami Beach, and west for a tiny portion of Miami — are sharp, focused and bring a wealth of experience in their respective aspects of education, whether as teachers, administrators, community leaders or as parents of children in Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Rywell
Rywell

“Russ Rywell, a teacher at Miami Beach High School, is the stand-out among stand-outs. He brings a brawny mix of professional experiences, all of which will serve him, and all who are engaged with the school district, well.

The other impressive candidates in this race include:

“Lucia Baez Geller, 15-year teacher and community advocate who wants to continue to work on behalf of teachers, and tackle overtesting and school overcrowding.

“Raquel Bild-Libbin is a psychologist who wants to be a strong advocate for mental health services for students navigating difficult issues in their lives, including, now, the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Marcela Gomez-Bogomolni is a social worker committed to bringing equity to district schools and addressing drug use district wide.

“Joshua Levy is president of the Miami Beach Bar Association, with a long and solid record of service in the education arena, including as chair of the Quality of Education Committee for Miami Beach and PTSA feeder-pattern representative.

Rywell is deeply engaged with students, in whom he nurtures a can-do spirit in those who might not otherwise think they can achieve great things. “We need role models, need to inspire kids and set high bars of expectations,” he told the Editorial Board. “We cannot classify kids based on past experiences.” Rather, he tell them, “This is what you have to do, and you can do it.” In fact, it’s what he told Heavyn Lee, recently featured in the Miami Herald. She, with Rywell’s guidance, will enter Harvard University in the fall.

A native of Miami Beach, Rywell spent 14 years in finance, working in bond-portfolio analysis in New York, later relocating to Singapore to run Citigroup’s G-7 currency options business for the Asia Pacific Region, before returning to Miami Beach with his young family. And even while in New York, he mentored at-risk students.

Rywell thinks pragmatically, suggesting that, while everyone’s safety during COVID-19 is paramount, underenrolled schools in District 3 could relieve the pressure on those with increasing enrollment, helping achieve the physical distancing required. In the long term, putting the federal resources into the underenrolled schools could instill better equity and quell “boundary jumping” in the district.

He says that while Miami-Dade Schools chief Alberto Carvalho has displayed “outstanding” execution of policy directives, especially eliminating “F” schools, which Rywell calls the “Miami miracle Part 1.” Now, Rywell says, “We need strategic direction from the board. The World Health Organization teaches us that the three most crucial skills for jobs are complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.”

We think Rywell is best suited to provide that vital direction.

The Miami Herald Editorial Board recommends RUSS RYWELL for Miami-Dade School Board District 3.

DISTRICT 5

Three of the candidates vying for the seat vacated by Susie V. Castillo are well-versed in the needs of the district, which includes Doral, Miami Springs and Hialeah.

They are Christi Fraga, the vice mayor of Doral; Mara Zapata, an FIU educator and former council member in Miami Springs; Jaime Petralanda, a teacher and current council member in Miami Springs. The fourth candidate, Michel Diaz Suarez, declined the invitation to take part in the candidate interviews.

Zapata
Zapata

The candidates the board interviewed agree that schools should not reopen if the COVID-19 numbers don’t flatten. They also agree that distance teaching in Miami-Dade saw a bumpy start and needs to be fine-tuned. “But it did get better as time went on, “ said Petralanda, the only current district classroom teacher in the group.

Fraga, who has a school-age child, says facetime between a student and teacher made a difference in distance teaching. “When they are connected it works better.” She would encourage more of it.

Fraga said the superintendent had done a fine job leading through the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting the district’s victories. But she worries that parents with children who struggle at school are some times are lost in the district maze. “I think we need to be more transparent. Navigating the school system can be difficult for families, and they find themselves making decisions they didn’t want to make because they have not found the solution they want in the public school system,” she said.

The disparity in the district is a burning issue, the candidates agreed. “We can give students all the computers we want, but there is a reality in their lives. For some underprivileged kids if they don’t eat lunch and breakfast at school, they don’t eat,” Zapata said. She believes increased parent involvement will make a difference. “We need to find a way to eliminate some of the inequity in schools, and it starts with resources that we make known to the parents so they can then help their kids.”

Petralanda believes the private sector needs to be tapped to help public schools. “The government can’t be expected to do everything. We need to bring that sector into the fold,” he said.

All of the three candidates are knowledgeable and prepared. We know Fraga is a seasoned elected official with eight years on the Doral council, but we’re concerned by her political ties to the charter school industry.

We give the edge to Zapata for her thoughtfulness and promise to focus on underprivileged students, pushing them to bring their parents into the education dialogue. The Miami Herald recommends MARA ZAPATA in School Board District 5.

DISTRICT 7

Incumbent Lubby Navarro is being challenged by both a former school principal and a community activist who feel minority, poor and mentally troubled students in the district are getting short shrift. They are running for office to help recapture students left behind in a district that includes Kendall, the Hammocks and South Dade.

Navarro says that’s what she’s been doing for the past four years. Navarro, an administrator in the public health field, describes herself as a policymaker who has made a real impact. She says she helped uplift failing Miami Southwest Senior High to a B school. She championed a referendum to compensate the district’s workforce. She has the support of United Teachers of Dade.

Navarro wants to follow science when deciding when to return to traditional school. “This is not a political issue; this is a clinical event,” she said.” I’m not ready to open schools.”

Challenger Marie Flore Lindor-Latortue, a social worker and media personality from Haiti, says her platform is about inclusion. “I’m not challenging the incumbent, I am challenging the Miami-Dade school system and its many gaps.” She says Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is doing a fine job but wants to see more “collective leadership,” involving all board members, whose terms she wants limited.

Lorraine Ordenes Real, a former elementary school assistant principal and a business owner, says the district needs to focus more on providing mental-health options in the schools. “We need to have more counselors,” she told the Editorial Board. She believes trust counselors should not be optional at schools, but a requirement. We agree.

Although Navarro’s challengers make good points about the deficiencies in the unincorporated district that she should take to heart, we commend Navarro for rolling up her sleeves and fighting for her district — successfully. The Miami Herald recommends LUBBY NAVARRO for School Board District 7.

DISTRICT 9

As with District 3, there are five solid candidates in the race to replace Larry Feldman:

“Shelly Fano is an educator with 30 years’ experience spanning pre-K to post-secondary education. She is currently executive director of Miami Dade College’s Hospitality Institute.

“Justin Koren is an assistant principal at Miami Killian Senior High.

“Dennis Moss, who is leaving the Miami-Dade County Commission because of term limits and brings a strong record of countywide elective service.

“Luisa Santos, a Georgetown-educated businesswoman who worked with the undersecretary of education in the Obama administration.

Lawther
Lawther

Our choice is Nancy Lawther. She is a career educator who is steeped in advocacy for parents, students and everyone else who is dependent on the results of providing quality education, which means the entire community.

She has been on the faculty of Barry University and has offered classes for older adults through the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Living Institute.

Most important, her activism as a longtime member of the PTA has expanded to both countywide and statewide accomplishments, helping write state education law.

She speaks with reassuring authority on a wide range of issues; data drive her policy proposals, especially as she commits to bringing equity to schools in a district in which not every school is affluent and well-resourced.

For instance, Lawther wants to push for earlier diagnosis of any learning barriers a student might have; and earlier and less traditional determinants for giftedness to ensure more African-American and other minority students, too often shut out of such classes, are tested for eligibility and have access.

Her other issues: school safety — from COVID-19 to mental health to cyberbullying — and restoring arts education, and technical and career education, and bringing back neighborhood schools, a subject on which she speaks passionately: “Neighborhoods are sources of knowledge that are unexploited at this point.”

The Miami Herald Editorial Board recommends NANCY LAWTHER for School Board District 9.

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