Unopposed at the ballot box since 2016, Maria Teresa "Mari Tere" Rojas is challenged by Key Biscayne K-8 Center teacher Sandra Manzieri to represent District 6 for the Miami-Dade County School Board.
Motivated by what she sees as an administration and a school board "who has forgotten who they serve," Manzieri believes she will bring accountability to what she sees as an inept and unresponsive administration.
With student success and supporting teachers making up the top issues that will define the August 23 primary, both the two term incumbent and challenger hope to represent the District following the first full year of school where students and teachers are back in the classroom.
After an outcry from Key Biscayne residents and K-8 Center staff over an array of concerns with the island's only public school, Manzieri decided to run for the seat.
Following a letter addressed to the K-8 Center and subsequently published in the local paper The Islander from a Key Biscayne resident concerning issues with the island's lone school and a subsequent February gathering of 60 concerned parents at the Key Biscayne Community Center, a PTA meeting was held in early March to address the residents' concerns.
“I have been a property owner and lived in Key Biscayne for the last 16 years. I thought I would be able to send my children to Key Biscayne K-8 until eighth grade, but now I find myself looking for other options because this school is no longer an option for my children. Many families have already left the school and many others have applied to other schools for the next school year. This shouldn’t be happening.”Key Biscayne resident Ivette Fernandez-Chaustre -The Islander
The two-hour meeting brought a myriad of complaints from residents in addition to Manzieri herself addressing concerns that she stated were on behalf of herself and other K-8 staff.
"First grade teacher Sandra Manzieri, the teacher representative to the K-8 PTA, read from a list of 40 bullet points critical of the administration. Among her specific criticisms were “little or no supervision” at student drop off, a crowded cafeteria where there are “many student referrals due to fights and arguments,” and lack of engagement in school wide activities," the Key Biscayne Independent wrote.
However, Rojas and others have denied such concerns and have pointed towards the performance of the K-8 Center student body in comparison to other District 6 schools.
Regarding the February letter published by island resident Ivette Fernandez-Chaustre, Rojas stated that she wants "to categorically express that the article is not accurate and all concerns were addressed with Ms. Fernandez-Chautstre."
Concerns were also denied during the March PTA meeting in which Regional school superintendent Dr. Michael Lewis pointed towards the K-8 Center's strong academic performance as a counter to the village parents' issues.
"Dr. Michael Lewis, a regional school superintendent, presented a powerpoint on the K-8’s academics he said were above average, and said claims of inadequate student-teacher ratios were not borne out by statistics. He emphasized that all schools are facing challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Independent wrote.
Labeling the parents' concerns as "rumors" and "misinformation," Lewis pointed towards statistics indicating a 69 percent improvement in the K-8 Center's overall school performance measurements in comparison to the rest of the district which Lewis stated showed a 49 percent improvement. Lewis additionally pointed towards an increase in the K-8 center's enrollment.
However, despite incumbent Rojas' and the administration's denial of Manzieri's and some village parents' concerns, the K-8 Center's principal, Principal Michelle Coto, was reassigned this summer to a different school.
“'It’s obvious there were issues and there were concerns on all sides...Changes take place (every summer) and the administration has to make recommendations with important decisions where we have issues so that we can resolve them,'" Rojas told the Islander.
Despite Rojas' denial of concerns in her response letter to Ms. Fernandez-Chaustre, the District 6 School Board member has maintained a satellite office at Key Biscayne's Village Hall to meet with residents who can voice their concerns.
In addition to Key Biscayne, District 6 of the Miami-Dade School Board includes Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, South Miami, Little Havana, Shenandoah, Westchester and part of Kendall.
Both educators with years of experience, Manzieri has been teaching for 21 years and Rojas has accumulated more than 46 years in the field of education. Rojas has served as a teacher, principal and district official, all in the Miami-Dade County.
"There is a lot of talk, but not a lot of substance," Manzieri told The Miami Independent. Claiming that the school board holds meetings with lead to "grandstanding" and congratulations for programs which "don't affect the classroom," the K-8 teacher asserts that District 6's educational leadership is not hearing parents' and teachers' concerns.
Raising her own child with special needs, Manzieri declared that she had to move her child to a private school due to the lack of delivery on promised support at the K-8 Center. "Everything is nicely placed on paper, but services are not provided."
Manzieri asserts she has always advocated for students. In contrast to her opponent, the K-8 teacher stated that because Rojas has been "in it" for so long, she has become unresponsive.
Rojas helped pass an over $7 billion operating budget in September, the largest budget in history and over $2 billion more than approved for the prior year.
Calling for accountability, Manzieri stated that serious attention needs to be paid to the record breaking budget. "There is no room for waste or error - our future depends on it," Manzieri told The Islander.
The sister-in-law of Carlos Gimenez, the former Miami-Dade mayor and now a U.S. representative, Rojas has raised $177,521, dwarfing the $12365 Manzieri has accumulated. "In addition to small contributions, Rojas’ funds have come from builders, businesses and the teachers union in $1,000 checks, the maximum contribution allowed," the Miami Herald reports.
With candidates facing an increasing political environment, both candidates believe parents should have an "increased role in their child's education."
"Echoing talking points often shared by conservative lawmakers, Manzieri said teachers should focus on reading, math and science while any discourse or debate surrounding social issues should be removed from the classroom. The district is “wasting precious time bickering” about topics that “don’t have a place in the classroom,” particularly when some students can’t read on grade level."
Both believe addressing learning losses is most important and leaving politicized content out of the classroom is the best way forward.
"Rojas also emphasized the need to focus on core subjects, particularly civics. But moving forward, she said, especially following the pandemic when many young students faced academic challenges, a particular focus should also be given to students in primary grades."
She voted to ban two formerly approved sex education textbooks as concerns arose that the content would violate the new Florida state law against age-inappropriate sexuality and gender education.
The new state law, titled "Parental Rights in Education" went into effect on July 1.
“I voted against it because I don’t feel it is age-appropriate," Rojas told 7 News Miami. "There is a portion of the book that is good, but there are portions of the book that should not be there for our students."
However, Rojas did take a stand against DeSantis with Miami-Dade School Board members in voting to implement a mandatory mask policy on August 18 of last year. The implementation of the mandate stood in defiance of the governor's executive order that no state or school district shall impose mask mandates.