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Under State Pressure, Miami-Dade School Board Moves Up Campus Reopening To Next Week

From left, teachers Jeff Raymond and Richard Ocampo participate in a rally outside the Miami-Dade County School Board headquarters in downtown Miami on Sept. 28. The rally, which was led by a faction of the United Teachers of Dade, opposed state officials pressuring school administrators to open in-person classes in early October.
Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald
From left, teachers Jeff Raymond and Richard Ocampo participate in a rally outside the Miami-Dade County School Board headquarters in downtown Miami on Sept. 28. The rally, which was led by a faction of the United Teachers of Dade, opposed state officials pressuring school administrators to open in-person classes in early October.

In a stunning turnabout, and under pressure from state officials, the Miami-Dade County school board voted Tuesday to begin bringing students back to campuses in less than a week.

During its first in-person meeting in months, the school board reversed its decision from last week, moving up its planned Oct. 14 reopening date to Oct. 5 after State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter threatening the loss of state funding.

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The financial consequences could have added up to $84 million if the district had refused to comply with the state’s demand, according to one school board member.

“We have to be responsible. We have to make tough decisions. We always have,” said School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman. “I cannot even think that I would be able to support something that could cut funding for our schools — which we so desperately need. There would be no way that I could sleep well at night.”

A reopening plan the district submitted to the state Department of Education over the summer — which was not first approved by the school board — stated that school buildings would reopen Oct. 5 if local health conditions supported in-person classes.

When the board tried to deviate from that commitment during last week’s 29-hour marathon meeting, Corcoran intervened.

The possibility of losing tens of millions of dollars at a time when the district is facing unprecedented expenses wasn’t a risk board members were ultimately willing to take, despite their conclusion just a week ago that schools wouldn’t be ready to hold in-person classes safely for several weeks. Board member Lawrence Feldman characterized the situation by saying the board had “no choices.”

The locally elected officials were clear that they aren’t happy about how the saga played out — but they didn’t aim their frustration at Corcoran.

Hantman, the board chair, said she was displeased with how Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has handled the ramp up to reopening: He chose to use an online learning platform provided by the for-profit company K12 without first getting board approval, and when cyber attacks and software glitches led to a disastrous first few days of the school year, the board ended up voting to get rid of the program. Further, Carvalho submitted the plan to the state committing to the Oct. 5 reopening without the board’s consent.

“This reopening plan ... is nothing that the board approved. And we have tolerated it. We allowed it. We are here today because of that,” Hantman said.

“The board didn’t have anything to do with it. And I think the board should have had something to say, but we didn’t,” she said. “This is where we are.”

A July order from Corcoran mandated that schools open starting in early August at least five days a week, for families who choose to send their students for in-person classes. As part of the order, the state agreed to fund schools based on enrollment levels from before the pandemic, since thousands of public school parents have chosen private, charter or home school instead given the myriad personal and educational challenges presented by COVID-19.

Miami-Dade and other South Florida districts were given flexibility from the mandate to reopen school buildings in August because of the surge of COVID-19 cases that hit the region over the summer. But now that pandemic conditions have improved, Corcoran’s patience has run out. And at stake was tens of millions of dollars.

Carvalho said during the meeting that he spoke with Corcoran on Monday, and the commissioner indicated the department would accept a plan for a staggered reopening, as long as all students who wanted to take in-person classes were back on their campuses by Oct. 9. A spokeswoman for Corcoran confirmed the details of the conversation in an e-mail.

The superintendent also said the district might need to find alternatives for a small number of schools because their air filtration systems are too old and not equipped to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

During Tuesday’s meeting, several public speakers called Corcoran a “bully.” Some argued the board’s local control was being usurped by the state.

“We wish you to pursue vigorously all avenues that may be open to you to assert your local control in this matter,” said Nancy Lawther, former president of the Miami-Dade County Council PTA/PTSA and a recent school board candidate.

School board member Steve Gallon said the conflict was about money, not power.

“With all due respect, this is not about local control. We have that authority to rip this plan up, rip up the letter [from Corcoran] and proceed under the current statutory framework for school funding,” Gallon said. “However, ripping up that plan has consequences: $54 million worth of consequences — up to $84 million, according to our CFO [chief financial officer].”

The meeting started with about an hour and a half of public comment, during which teachers and parents urged the school board to stick to the plan they committed to last week.

“What we are asking for is to open schools up with the care and foresight required to keep our community safe and to avoid a regression into high infection rates,” Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, said during the meeting.

“But the fact that our board would allow our children to be at the risk over political agendas is alarming.”

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Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.