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In Dade, Ditching At-Large Voting Means New Faces

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Renier Diaz de la Portilla waves to cars from a narrow median at the intersection of Southwest 87th Avenue and Coral Way in Miami's Westchester neighborhood. With him are two campaign aides who prop up black and green signs advertising his candidacy for the Dade County, Fla., school board.

As the rush-hour traffic whizzes by, drivers flash Mr. Diaz de la Portilla the thumbs-up sign or blare their horns.

"Go home, go home," an elderly woman shouts in Spanish as she brakes to stop at a red light. "You've already won."

As it turns out, she was right.

In a runoff last week, Mr. Diaz de la Portilla garnered 66 percent of the vote, enough to earn him a seat on the Dade County school board. Six of the nine seats are still up for grabs in the Nov. 5 election.

The 25-year-old Cuban-American Republican is part of what many see as a new era for the 330,000-student school system, the nation's fourth-largest.

Pushed by a federal lawsuit intended to boost minority representation on the board, Dade County this year will elect nine members from single-member districts rather than seven countywide members. For years, white Democrats have held the majority on a board overseeing a student body that is predominantly minority.

The enrollment in the county's school system is 14 percent white, 52 percent Hispanic, and 33 percent black.

Mr. Diaz de la Portilla is an example of the new faces the court settlement is expected to bring onto one of the most stable urban school boards in the nation. Several members have served for a decade or more. Ironically, that stability has contributed to the current board's demise.

The Dade County schools are undergoing a double whammy in leadership changes. As the system ushers in a more ethnically and politically diverse board, one of the board's first tasks will be to choose a superintendent to replace Octavio J. Visiedo, who stepped down last spring after more than five years. Many see these changes as a turning point for the district. ("Dade Superintendent Steps Down After Five Years," May 22, 1996.)

While it's difficult to predict how dramatically the new board will change the direction of the Dade County schools, many here fear that those managing the mammoth $3.2 billion system likely will be vulnerable to more parochial loyalties and factional politics.

Mr. Diaz de la Portilla--who supports private school vouchers and school prayer--was elected in a district whose electorate is 61 percent Republican and 65 percent Hispanic.

As of last week, three of the nine seats had been decided. Mr. Diaz de la Portilla's district was one of two with no Democratic opposition, guaranteeing Republican seats for the first time in decades. Since none of the Republicans in those districts garnered a clear majority in a September primary, the top candidates went through last week's runoff. The third board seat was decided in a September Democratic primary because no Republican ran there.

The Nov. 5 election could also boost the number of blacks on the board from one to two, and the number of Hispanics--all Republicans--from one to as many as five. No more than four incumbents could wind up on the new board.

Union Influence

The three seats already decided are the current board's sole black member, Democrat Frederica S. Wilson, Mr. Diaz de la Portilla, who is finishing his master's degree in education policy, and another Cuban-American Republican, Perla Tabares-Hantman, who formerly served on the state's board of regents.

The District 8 race between Mr. Diaz de la Portilla and Maria Arias-Gonzalez illustrates the controversial issues that many predict will surface on the new school board. At a recent candidates' forum at St. Timothy Roman Catholic Church here, issues such as sex education, school prayer, and private school vouchers--in addition to such perennials as back-to-basics curricula, school safety, discipline, and crowding--took center stage.

While many of the most conservative candidates were winnowed out in the primaries, observers predict a shift away from the current board's more liberal orientation. Mr. Diaz de la Portilla's name, for example, is well-known in Miami's Cuban Republican political circles; he has one brother in the Florida legislature and another on the powerful county commission.

Other candidates still in the running for seats--the race started with more than 30 hopefuls--include the owner of a string of private schools, a former Dade deputy superintendent, and the wife of a state legislator. Some candidates have raised as much as $200,000 in campaign funds.

The 30,000-member United Teachers of Dade has poured unprecedented resources into influencing the outcome of this year's races. The union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, will negotiate a three-year contract next spring with the new board.

The UTD has spent $300,000, hired pollsters and political strategists in Miami and Washington, created a political-action committee to raise money for UTD-backed candidates, and issued early endorsements.

So far, the strategy seems to have paid off, with most of the union-backed candidates well-positioned for next month's elections.

"I realized that they [board members under the new system] might not have the school district's best interests, as a whole--with ward politics and divisiveness--and that kind of board could wreak havoc with the district," said Pat L. Tornillo Jr., the union's executive vice president.

"Then you'd hear things like Hispanic parents want different things than black or Anglo parents. Á That's the kind of thing--the factionalism--we feared most," he said.

Delivering the Goods

Black and Hispanic leaders brought a class action against the Dade County schools in 1991, charging that the district's at-large elections violated federal voting-rights laws by robbing minorities of representation.

After the Dade County school board was blasted by the local news media for fighting the lawsuit--and after seeing the Metro-Dade Commission lose a similar voting-rights suit in 1992--the school board in April 1994 voted 4-3 to settle the suit.

Historically, most Hispanics first gained a seat on the Dade school board by being appointed to fill an absence, then some went on to be re-elected, said Stephen M. Cody, a Miami lawyer who brought the suit.

Supporters of the governance change say it will encourage fairer representation of the county's voters. Critics say it could lead to high turnover, ward politics, and racial and ethnic tensions. And some argue that minorities are better off under the at-large system because--in theory--they have representation through each board member instead of having isolated seats of their own.

People like incumbent G. Holmes Braddock, who was first elected to the Dade County school board in 1962, said he envisions that issues ranging from what schools get built where, to what contractors build the schools, to which district workers get promoted or where they are transferred will become increasingly parochial and politicized.

"People are going to have to deliver to their districts," said Mr. Braddock, who is running for re-election in what has been dubbed the swing district, which will go either to Mr. Braddock, a white Democrat, or to a Cuban Republican.

Attracting a high-quality superintendent with a potentially divisive board, he said, will be a tough sell. "For a superintendent, it's like dealing cards: I'll give this to Braddock, that to Rosie [board member Rosa Castro Feinberg], so you end up running the school system for political instead of educational reasons."

Janet R. McAliley, who has served on the board since 1980, said she fears the new system will make it difficult to have strong board leadership.

"It was never hard for us to agree that we had to make a priority be the low-income, minority kids," she said. "We all reported to the same constituency. Now I don't know."

Neither she nor the board's sole Hispanic member, Ms. Feinberg, are seeking re-election. But for Ms. Feinberg, the risks involved in the governance change are a necessary trade-off.

She noted that while the school board in theory must answer to the entire county, the bottom line is that now when a parent who speaks only Spanish calls the board office, she is the only member who receives the call.

"How can I possibly represent the range of points of view in what is called 'the Hispanic community'?" she said. "It's absurd."

The Dade County school system successfully weathered the storm, literally, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew's devastation in 1992. And it has a reputation for maintaining solid management, embracing school reform, and boosting test scores.

But the current board has had its share of tensions, too. Some have criticized its handling of a massive school-construction project intended to accommodate a booming enrollment. Black community leaders blasted the board for hiring the Cuban-born Mr. Visiedo as superintendent in 1990.

A Stable History

Still, such national observers as Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, say Dade County's stability is unusual among urban districts, whose boards are often rife with factionalism. Some members, like Mr. Braddock, have been active in school issues nationally and have brought a broader perspective to the board, Mr. Casserly said.

Michael A. Resnick, the senior associate executive director for the National School Boards Association, said he thinks Dade's institutional stability will see it through the changes ahead.

"Even with a lot of new faces, the new board will probably manage the system well," Mr. Resnick said. "In theory it sets the stage for factionalism, but it's going to depend a lot on the personalities involved."

Regardless of the election results, it is clear that people like Mr. Diaz de la Portilla are looking forward to rattling the status quo.

"The board hasn't had an open ear to our interests. As Cuban-Americans, we've worked hard in this community and given our share," he said. "We're not asking them to give us political representation. We're taking it."

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