A political newcomer is hoping to unseat a longtime incumbent for the Miami-Dade County School Board District 2 seat in the Aug. 23 primary.
La-Shanda West, a teacher at Cutler Bay Senior High who has taught a range of topics, including civics, law, reading, speech and debate and U.S. history, is challenging Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall for the seat she’s held since 2010. This year’s election is the second time the incumbent is facing a challenger. In 2018, Bendross-Mindingall, 79, beat Brandon Alfred with more than 68% of the vote.
“Part of the concern I have is that accountability piece,” West, 50, told the Herald. Whether it’s adding tutoring, providing timely updates to parents or measuring the effectiveness of programs, West believes the messaging and the availability of information is “not clear.”
“I want to know how [Bendross-Mindingall] determines her program reach and success,” she said.
Bendross-Mindingall declined to be interviewed for this article. In a separate interview with the Herald’s Editorial Board, however, the former state legislator, teacher and school principal dismissed the notion that she is inaccessible.
“I don’t think we would have that many people who would say that I am not accessible. In my opinion and the opinion of others, I have done an admirable job,” Bendross-Mindingall told the Board. “So I know the people right now are asking me why am I being opposed. I don’t know.”
Among her biggest accomplishments are her parental involvement and engagement efforts, Bendross-Mindingall told the Editorial Board. Moreover, when she joined the School Board a dozen years ago, District 2 had no K-8 school, according to Bendross-Mindingall; now there are nine. (On the District 2 website, the list of schools includes five K-8 centers.)
Bendross-Mindingall has raised nearly $100,000 during her campaign, about 35 times more than West’s $2,847. Early voting began on Monday and continues through 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21. The primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 23.
Top issues, priorities for candidates
The decline in student enrollment in Miami-Dade Public Schools and the retention of teachers and students are among West’s top concerns.
Over the last few years, the district has reported a steady decline in enrollment. In 2017-18, the district reported just more than 354,000 students. For the 2021-22 school year, it reported just under 330,000, shrinking its enrollment by about 24,800 students. Miami-Dade is the fourth-largest school district in the country.
Students are leaving because they have choices, such as charter schools, which may be better for that family, West argued, but questioned whether the district has done everything to understand why families are leaving. Moreover, teachers have requirements from Tallahassee they have to teach, but don’t receive additional compensation for the extra mandates.
The board “is not talking about that because none of the people who sit on the board has been in the classroom in the last decade or more,” West said.
Electing a teacher who is in the classroom and meeting the needs of the district could help address the retention of teachers and students, she said.
For Bendross-Mindingall, the exodus of students from traditional public schools likely won’t be reversed, but said she was meeting with parents to understand where the district is falling short and how that’s impacting families’ decisions to leave.
“I believe we’re going to have to come up with something new, exciting and different so that we can maintain our children,” Bendross-Mindingall told the Board.
Teacher pay, the future of the district’s property-tax referendum to raise teacher salaries, school safety and additional mental health support programs for teachers are also among West’s top concerns. But when prompted about the top issues facing the district, Bendross-Mindingall said, “It’s amazing that what my opponent is saying I have already done, especially in mental health. We have an entire department that’s working on that issue.”
Both candidates support the referendum, which would cost homeowners about $55 more in their annual property tax bill. The district has estimated the measure, on the Nov. 8 ballot, would bring in about $400 million, to be used to boost teacher salaries and school safety. The proposal would extend a school tax that voters approved in 2018, but which is set to expire in June 2023. Under the referendum, the tax rate would go from $75 to $100 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value, a 33 percent increase.
While Bendross-Mindingall believes voters will again support the referendum, West questioned if the district has a contingency plan in place if or when constituents decide against the measure. Supporting teacher pay, among other initiatives, “should not just fall on the voters,” West said.
When it comes to learning losses among students as a result of the pandemic, both candidates agree addressing the issue and catching students up is a top priority and should involve parents.
“We have got to work very, very hard to catch [District 2] students up, Bendross-Mindingall told the board, but said the district is working closely with community-based organizations to offer tutoring for students.
For her part, West said she has firsthand experience of the learning loss facing students. She acknowledged that there are tutoring programs available, but questioned their accessibility and how many students were taking advantage of them.
Despite the experience of the incumbent, West believes her candidacy is an opportunity to go against the status quo and what’s “comfortable.” As a graduate of Homestead Senior High, she said she is well-invested as a professional, a parent and someone “who wants what is best for the school district.” (Bendross-Mindingall graduated from Miami Northwestern Senior High School.)
Nevertheless, West said she hopes voters will “take that risk and try something new.”
DISTRICT 2 CANDIDATES, MIAMI-DADE SCHOOL BOARD
Occupation: School Board District 2 representative
Experience: School Board member since 2010, former state representative, teacher and principal
Money raised: $99,930, as of Aug. 9
Occupation: Teacher at Cutler Bay Senior High. Subjects taught include civics, law, reading and U.S. history to middle school students and global studies, iPrep career choices, speech and debate honors, world cultural geography honors and world history to high school students.
Money raised: $2,847, as of Aug. 9