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Teachers Running for Miami-Dade School Board

Susan Notes: I haven't a clue if I'd agree with any of these teachers, but I say three cheers for teachers who decide to stop allowing themselves to be victims and to work to have a real voice.

That said, we can wonder why the headline writer called teacher smarts "book smarts." Teacher savvy, that classroom experience, is the opposite of the ivory tower distance implied by the headline.

None of the Miami-Dade School Board's nine members has taught in a classroom in at least 25 years, but a number of teachers are running to try to change that in this year's elections.

The pencil box on Martin Karp's desk, a holiday gift from a former student, whispers a sentimental thought: ``a teacher's worth cannot be measured.''

In an election, however, it most certainly can -- in polls, in fundraising dollars and, ultimately, in votes.

While teachers hold a quaint place in the American spirit, in Miami-Dade County they rarely hold spots on the School Board that oversees them. None of the nine current members were teachers or principals when they were elected -- only three have been classroom teachers and they have been out of the classroom for at least 25 years.

This year, however, four teachers and an assistant principal are among the 18 candidates running for five board seats. None has ever run for political office, but they are counting on their classroom experience and education expertise to fuel their campaigns.

''It's very important to have multiple views on that School Board, and one that's critical is that of the educator,'' said Mark Richard, director of the United Teachers of Dade union. ``It's such a challenge to make sure that the School Board doesn't become so disconnected from the classroom that policy issues take a back seat to political issues.''


The educators are running against several seasoned politicians, including two former state lawmakers, a former School Board member and a sitting municipal mayor. Three current board members are also in the mix seeking reelection.

Unlike the teachers, those candidates are fluent in electoral politics, from the public debates to the awkward fundraising calls to the backroom wrangling over endorsements.

''They know what they're doing, and I'm kind of just plodding around here. They're well-funded, and I haven't got a clue where to get funded,'' said Dex Steenhoff, a government and economics teacher at South Dade Senior High who is running for the District 9 Southeast Dade seat being vacated by Betsy Kaplan. ``But teachers know what's happening in the trenches at the bottom level.''

In a race that has businessmen promising to improve the school district's bottom line, accountants promising to find more money in the budget and architects promising to streamline construction, the teachers hope their years of chalk dust and parent conferences will have special cachet with voters.

''I'm going to see things differently as a teacher than people who have never stepped into a classroom,'' said Edward Lasoff, who retired last year from Southwest Miami Senior High but still teaches night classes there as well as at Miami Dade College and Nova Southeastern University. ``I know what I'm looking at; I know what children need and I know what the teachers need.''

Lasoff is one of three challengers to incumbent Frank Cobo in Southwest Miami-Dade, part of a field that also includes activist Margaret Slama; Victor Bao, a businessman and adjunct professor at Florida International University; and Ana Logan, assistant principal at Kinloch Park Elementary.

''The argument that there's more to it than the classroom -- the proper use of funds and how to maintain the district as a competitive employer and how to keep the schools attractive -- those issues don't have the kind of visceral attraction that the children have,'' said Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington who studies urban school systems.


Other candidates tread lightly on educators' classroom background, emphasizing their own credentials without disparaging the importance of teachers. Many have tried to emphasize the need for business and administrative experience, pointing out that the district is a $4.5 billion annual operation and that the board has little direct impact on classroom education.

''The biggest problem in the school system is money, the lack of it and hiding it,'' said Michael Kosnitzky, a banker and accountant running against Karp and school activist Randy Heimler for Michael Krop's vacated seat in District 3, which includes the Beaches and Aventura area. ``This job shouldn't be left to people that don't have that kind of experience.''

Karp has some armor against that charge. In addition to teaching at Biscayne Elementary, where he helped develop the gifted program and was named Teacher of the Year, he was the business manager for Playbill magazine and worked in his family's business, Carnival Fruit Co.


That experience, though, does not shield him from a common question about teacher-candidates -- whether they can handle the gritty world of South Florida politics.

When Karp teaches his gifted elementary students about ethics by having them act out moral dilemmas, they almost always create a happy ending: enemies become friends, lessons are learned, rules are followed.

Soft-spoken and pensive, Karp said he can be firm and aggressive when necessary, but prefers building consensus.

''I think I have the right character,'' he said. ``The one thing I've learned over the years is to be a good listener.''

But good intentions and patience are often not enough in politics, said Frederica Wilson, a board member from 1992 to 1998 and the last one to make the transition directly from a school. She said it was difficult to adapt to the hidden agendas, shifting alliances and policies that left her ``puzzled and bewildered.''

''I was not accustomed to the political life, where people vote for things they really don't believe in for political reasons,'' said Wilson, now a state senator. ``It was not easy at all and it took a long time.''

She said teachers need to constantly focus public attention on their background in education and contrast it with their opponents. When she ran after eight years as a teacher and 12 as a principal, her slogan was: ``A principal with principles running for the children.''

Also working to the teachers' advantage is the presumed support from their 16,000 colleagues in the Miami-Dade district -- a group experts believe are disproportionately likely to vote in School Board elections.

''Who better knows what teachers and children need than someone who has dedicated their entire life to education?'' said Anita Meinbach, a former statewide Teacher of the Year who is on leave from the district to teach education at the University of Miami. ``I know what kids need, I know what works.''

Meinbach and Steenhoff are in the crowded District 9 field, facing former county PTA President Karin Brown, Pinecrest Mayor Evelyn Greer, former Rep. Cindy Lerner, former School Board member Jacqueline Pepper and former state Sen. Dick Renick.

''I think all these other people see the business issues and they see the politics and all that,'' Steenhoff said. ``But even if you solve all those problems, you still have kids who don't learn.''

— Matthew I. Pinzur
Teachers hope 'book smarts' fuel campaigns for Dade board
Miami Herald


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