DeSantis puts his stamp on school board races in Florida
MIAMI — In her 24 years as a Florida school board member, Marta Perez offered a Bible study class for students, opposed a move to bolster anti-racism programs after George’s murder Floyd and spoke out against adopting a manual with pictures of birth control methods she deemed inappropriate for her 13-year-old granddaughter.
However, her long history of supporting conservative causes wasn’t enough to save her job after she found herself a target of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Perez lost his seat on the Miami-Dade school board last week to a former teacher who was on a list of candidates endorsed by DeSantis.
Perez believes she drew the ire of DeSantis by voting for a school mask mandate a year into the pandemic, when Florida was in the throes of its deadliest wave of COVID-19. DeSantis opposes such policies.
“What it showed was that I was out of step with the governor. I didn’t obey the governor, and that’s unforgivable,” said Perez, who is 71.
More than almost any other national figure, DeSantis has led the charge in turning culture war fights over anti-racism policies, sexuality and COVID-19 restrictions in schools into national issues. More recently, he has inserted himself into school board races as he seeks to expand his sphere of influence and animate conservatives while running for re-election and considering a 2024 presidential bid.
Of the 30 candidates endorsed by DeSantis in the Aug. 23 election, 19 won, five lost and six are heading to a runoff.
“We got involved to help candidates who were fighting the machine, fighting the lockdowners, fighting the forced masks, fighting the people who wanted to indoctrinate our children,” DeSantis said in an election night victory speech as the crowd cheered and applauded. “Parents are tired of nonsense when it comes to education. We want schools to educate children.”
The school board races are nonpartisan, but the governor’s involvement helped move at least three Florida school boards from a liberal majority to a conservative majority. Five of his picks beat incumbents affiliated with the Democratic Party, while others ran for vacant seats and at least two beat Republicans, including Perez, according to results released by the counties.
“He’s trying to build that as part of his political brand,” said Sarah Reckhow, who teaches American politics and public policy at Michigan State University and majors in education.
Reckhow noted that parents and others had become more aware of the role and importance of school board members during the COVID-19 pandemic, when districts determined how and when children would return to classrooms.
As calls for mandates and mask-wearing waned, the school debate shifted to how children learn about race, gender and sexual orientation. In Virginia’s gubernatorial election last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated his Democratic opponent in part by seizing on parental frustrations over school closings and references to race in classrooms. The Texas Republican Party began endorsing candidates in nonpartisan school board races earlier this year.
DeSantis took a step forward. He appeared at a summit organized by the conservative group Moms for Liberty in July and put together a list of school board candidates starting with a questionnaire in which he asked them to sign a certificate pledging their support.
DeSantis also traveled the state to support his picks. His Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, followed suit, endorsing his own much smaller slate. Of the seven approved Crists, two starters have won, two challengers have lost and three candidates are heading to runoffs, including one against a DeSantis pick.
But it was DeSantis’ broader efforts that propelled him to the forefront of the culture wars.
Earlier this year, he championed a law that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that bans classes on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade, and he promoted a law called the “Stop WOKE Act” that prohibits teaching or business practices that claim members of an ethnic group are inherently racist and excludes the idea that a person’s status as privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his race or sex. A judge later ruled that the “WOKE” law was an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
If the primary results are any indication, DeSantis’ education measures seem to be resonating with Florida voters.
The race for the Miami-Dade school board seat between Perez and DeSantis candidate Monica Colucci was one of the most contested, totaling about $400,000 in campaign contributions and more tied to political committees. Similar two-candidate school board races in Miami had drawn about half the money in the recent election.
DeSantis’ influence in conservative circles is so pronounced that Perez and Colucci used photos of him in their campaign materials. But it was Colucci, who worked in the DeSantis administration from 2019 to 2020 as special assistant to Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, who won his coveted endorsement.
This summer, DeSantis’ political committee donated $150,000 to Nunez’s political committee, which in turn made several payments totaling more than $350,000 to a consulting firm working for Colucci’s campaign.
Nunez appeared alongside Colucci for events, commercials and interviews in Spanish. During a local television interview with Colucci, Nunez said she had known her for years and answered most questions, with Colucci speaking less than a minute during the 10-minute segment.
Colucci’s political consultant said she was unavailable for an interview as she left with her family after the election, and later said she would not be available until later in the year.
Jennifer Jenkins, a progressive Democrat and Brevard County school board member who defeated a conservative incumbent in 2020, said she thinks DeSantis’ push to add school board members who are friendly with his administration is a effort to advance his agenda and keep his critics at bay.
“If he gets more seats, they’re more loyal Republicans,” Jenkins said.
Perez has criticized DeSantis before. When he had been in office for less than two months, she told a newspaper that the governor’s plans to expand scholarship programs that divert money from public schools to private institutions worried her because she viewed the public education system as “the equalizer” and “what made the American system work.”
“In some things you have to serve the public in the best way possible, and that doesn’t mean you have to agree with every decision,” she told The Associated Press.
Perez, a registered Republican who voted for DeSantis in 2018, said her meeting with the governor didn’t change her opinion of the GOP as a whole, even if it soured her on DeSantis.
However, Perez said she doesn’t think she can go so far as to support Crist in November. She does not know who she will vote for.
Perez likes to joke that President Joe Biden’s economic policies will force her to move in with her adult children, who are Democrats. She still feels that her general ethos and worldview aligns her more with the Republican Party.
“I have to think there are conservatives who believe in a democracy and believe in the exchange of opinions,” Perez said.
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