With election wins and appointments, DeSantis expands his influence over Florida’s largest school districts
WLRN | By Kate Payne | September 7, 2022
For months, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has been upending the debates happening at local school board meetings. Now he’s helping change who sits on those boards.
DeSantis has a lot more power over local education policy after last month’s elections. His allies and appointees have taken seats on the boards of the state’s largest school districts and the new members are well positioned to implement the governor’s conservative agenda in public schools.
On the Sunday before Election Day, Governor Ron DeSantis held a rally in Doral with school board candidates — which is notable, because these positions are nonpartisan. At least officially.
“We want to make sure kids understand the truth about our country,” DeSantis told the crowd at a firefighters union hall in the Miami suburb. “We want to make sure that they understand American civics and understand that our rights come from God, not from the government.”
Public schools are also officially secular, but DeSantis referenced scripture, Ephesians 6:10-18, and framed this moment as a Biblical battle against evil. “Get ready to go put on that full armor of God and stand firm for the truth,” DeSantis said as the crowd cheered.
The 30 school board candidates across the state who DeSantis endorsed ahead of the August 23rd elections support his agenda for limiting conversations about race, gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
Outside the rally in Doral, a few dozen people came to protest, calling DeSantis a Christian nationalist and a theocrat.
“Show me what theocracy looks like!” a protest leader chanted. “That is what theocracy looks like!” the group replied.
A public health worker named Avani was among the protesters. She asked WLRN not to use her last name because she’s trans and says she’s afraid of being targeted.
“He wants to make sure that the schools are basically a mouthpiece for his agenda,” Avani said, “Saying his talking points, rather than having more diverse and critical viewpoints. And being able to learn about our true history, being able to learn about LGBTQ history, African American history, Latino history, and really being able to speak freely and openly and to think critically.”
Majority of DeSantis-endorsed school board candidates win their races
On Election Day, the majority of DeSantis’ picks won their races — including Monica Colucci in Miami-Dade County, the largest district in the state.
Colucci is a 26-year teacher and a political newcomer — but she got significant support from Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez. The women are friends from college and Colucci worked as a special assistant to Nuñez in the DeSantis administration from 2019 to 2020.
“She’s a mom, she’s a wife, she’s an educator, but most importantly a woman of faith,” Nuñez said, speaking at Colucci’s election night watch party at a ballroom on Calle Ocho.
Nuñez appeared in campaign ads with Colucci, sat for media interviews with her and contributed more than $350,000 to a consulting firm working for Colucci’s campaign, according to the Associated Press.
“Having her on the school board is going to lead us to a path where we’re going to provide a better quality education for our children. We’re going to provide parental rights — making sure that they have the ultimate say. We’re going to educate and not indoctrinate our students,” Nuñez said as the crowd cheered.
Colucci ran on her experience as an educator – and on a pledge to get social and cultural issues out of the classroom.
“I think that the message resonated,” Colucci said. “Parental rights, curriculum transparency. And just the fact that we need to go back to just teaching kids what they need to know — reading, writing, math, science, social studies.”
Like others endorsed by DeSantis, Colucci has claimed that schools are forcing a liberal ideology on students. Although in her more than two decades in the classroom, Colucci said she never saw her colleagues indoctrinate kids.
“My colleagues that I’ve taught with? No, I have not,” she said. “Thank goodness.”
But it was that message that helped Colucci oust a 24-year incumbent on the Miami-Dade County School Board —Marta Pérez.
“It was a campaign based out of anger — anger! The voters were angry at me,” Pérez said. “ ‘You’re a communist. You’re a traitor!’ And things like that. And all that Colucci had to do was say, ‘I’m endorsed by the governor.’”
Pérez was born in Cuba and has been a conservative voice on the school board. She voted against a plan to improve how Miami-Dade schools teach students about racism. And she voted to toss out health textbooks, after parents protested the chapters on sex and reproduction.
But Pérez says she was challenged from theright because she voted for a mask mandate back in August of 2021.
“My sin was to extend the masks because the teachers begged for it,” she said. “Does the punishment fit the crime? I guess. I don’t know. It’s remarkable. And it’s dangerous.”
Another DeSantis-endorsed candidate won his race for the Miami-Dade County School Board — Roberto Alonso.
Alonso will replace Perla Tabares Hantman, the board’s longest serving member and its current chair, who is also a Cuban American conservative. She decided to retire rather than run against a challenger.
Pérez says even the members who weren’t on the ballot this year got the message. “I think some of the board members are petrified,” Pérez said. “And they will vote in lockstep. Because they’re going to be so afraid that the same thing would happen to them.”
Majority of Broward school board is now made up of DeSantis appointees
Meanwhile in Broward County, DeSantis transformed the board in charge of the state’s second largest school district — without having to win a single election.
DeSantis suspended four sitting board members after a statewide grand jury found evidence of mismanagement.Final-Report-of-the-Grand-Jury_2019-240-miscdoc-373167-e20f