The Miami-Dade School Board District 8 seat has been occupied by Marta Perez since 1998. Since then, she’s been challenged just once — in 2014 by a political newcomer and former district teacher. Perez won that election with 83% of the vote.
Now, she’s facing her second challenger: Monica Colucci, another district teacher, with ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis and a strong conservative platform that emphasizes parental rights and a “back to basics” academic model that focuses on reading, writing, math and civics.
The race has attracted more money, over $372,000, than the other three School Board races, highlighting the role DeSantis is playing in local elections and how political they’ve become, even for this nonpartisan contest. A race that is nonpartisan means candidates are not identified by political party. The district goes from West Miami to southwest Miami-Dade.
In June, DeSantis endorsed two Miami-Dade candidates running for school board seats. One was Colucci, 49; the other was Roberto Alonso, a businessman and Miami Dade College Board of Trustees member who was appointed by DeSantis in 2020 to serve a four-year term. Alonso is running for the District 4 seat to succeed longtime incumbent Perla Tabares Hantman.
Last week, the governor again inserted himself in the race after a mailer supporting Perez featured one photo of him standing alongside her and a second, smaller image of him giving a thumbs-up. The law firm representing DeSantis and his political committee sent a cease-and-desist letter to the political committee that paid for the mailer saying the mailer created “a false and misleading impression that Governor DeSantis has endorsed and is supportive of Ms. Perez’s candidacy.”
During an interview with the Herald, Perez, 71, pointed to a mailer opposing her. Sent and paid for by Jobs and Prosperity for Florida, a political action committee, Perez said it misrepresents her more than two decades’ tenure on the board and presents information without context. The mailer claims Perez “voted to raise taxes,” for example, which she said is likely in reference to her support of the 2018 referendum that allowed voters to approve a property-tax hike to generate additional revenue for teacher salaries and school safety programs.
“This is a campaign of intimidation,” Perez said. “My record, I hope, speaks for itself.”
Top concerns, candidate experience
For both candidates, school safety, mental health concerns and paying teachers more are among the top issues.
But while Perez supports the upcoming referendum to increase property taxes that would generate funds to support those initiatives, specifically teacher pay and school safety, Colucci does not.
“There is a better way and that better way is to find within the $7 billion budget to properly compensate teachers and police officers,” Colucci said.
Though she acknowledged her lack of experience in managing such a large budget, Colucci said “there has to be a way to work together to find a way to get that money and cut excess fat from the budget. We have to focus more and streamline our budget.”
Perez, however, said Colucci’s response shows she doesn’t understand the budget and reiterated how some expenses are non-recurring. Moreover, during her tenure, the state has taken more money, resulting in districts having to “fund our schools locally,” she said.
The longevity of Perez’s tenure, however, underscores Colucci’s motivations to run, she said.
“When you have an incumbent who’s been there for 24 years, who hasn’t been in the classroom in a very long time, you lose that perspective that someone who is there every day can bring to the table,” she told the Herald. “As a teacher for 26 years, I know what’s happening in the classroom day in and day out.”
Teaching “has completely transformed” over the last two decades, Colucci said, but she remains in touch with the challenges and concerns teachers, students and parents have and are facing.
Perez, a former teacher, rejected that claim and said she visits classrooms and talks to teachers “all the time.” United Teachers of Dade, the teachers union, endorsed her candidacy.
Two conservatives on the ballot
On her campaign website, Colucci asserts that she’s “seen firsthand the detrimental impact of liberal policies being implemented in local schools throughout the country” and claims that Perez “has either supported or stood idly by as progressive activists and special interests seek to promote socialist curriculums and ideologies in our schools.”
“A vote for me will be a vote for ‘Education, Not Indoctrination,’ ” the website reads.
The slogan and language echo common phrases and sentiments shared by DeSantis and other conservative lawmakers in Tallahassee.
The governor this year signed into law a slew of rules that limit how race-related discussions are taught and prohibit lesson plans that discuss sexual orientation or gender identity for students in grades K-3. He also granted parents the ability to sue school districts if they believe a teacher has violated any of the laws’ provisions.
Colucci sought out the governor’s endorsement by reaching out to his team and did so because her platform “aligns with the governor’s education platform, plain and simple,” she said. Along with school safety and supporting higher pay for teachers, Colucci also supports increased parental involvement, more career and technical education programs and school choice.
When it comes to the increased role politics is playing in education, Colucci said education has always been political but acknowledged it has become even more so in recent years, which is why she believes DeSantis has become involved.
“We’re seeing a lot of ideology and political agendas being placed in the classroom. Part of my platform [is] to just teach the basics … and leave the politics out of it,” said Colucci, who worked in the governor’s executive office as the special assistant to Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, from February 2019 to August 2020. “My goal is to return education to what it should be, which is giving kids a strong academic foundation with the basic skills they need to be productive citizens.”
For her part, Perez agrees with the need for parental involvement and teaching core subjects. She was “instrumental” in developing the district’s Parent Academy and believes the district is “charged with teaching students academic subjects and that’s what we should concentrate on,” she told the Miami Herald Editorial Board.
Perez is a self-proclaimed conservative and pointed to her voting record. In June 2020, for example, she was the only board member who voted against a measure that would instruct district staff to develop or enhance existing curriculum to address racism and cultural understanding, saying at the time the school district should focus solely on academics.
Considering her governing approach coupled with the district’s recent A-rating, Perez said, she thought the governor would have been happy with her on the board.
District 8 candidates
▪ Age: 49
▪ Occupation: Teacher at Everglades K-8 Center
▪ Experience: Teacher for 26 years
▪ Money raised: $137,767, as of Aug. 2
▪ Age: 71
▪ Occupation: School Board District 8 representative
▪ Experience: Board member since 1998, former teacher
▪ Money raised: $234,245, as of Aug. 2
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