Coral Gables Commission Candidates Group IV debate held March 16 at 7pm, as recorded by Coral Gables TV.
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Coral Gables Commission Candidates Group IV debate held March 16 at 7pm, as recorded by Coral Gables TV.
Rather than the schedule I and (judging from the campaign talk) others expected, the Agave project — a big, big issue in this election — is going before the current, pre-election Commission, at a meeting on on March 25 at 1pm.1 This according to Group IV candidate Enrique Lopez who spoke at the Coral Gables candidate forum this evening.
While it’s undoubtedly smart lawyering for the Agave people to try to get approval from the known quantity of a largely pro-development lineup of Commissioners, given that their project has been part of the biggest issue in this campaign (if you discount the universal demagoguing about crime) this doesn’t sound at all good for local democracy.
How did the debate go? The great guys from Coral Gables TV say they’ll have the whole event up on You Tube by late tomorrow, the 17th. I’ll have my comments up on the whole debate soon too.
[One of the issues that has come up in the Coral Gables Commission candidates’ debates is “controlled choice”. Since I don’t know much about it, I asked an expert, my colleague (and Coral Gables resident) Osamudia James, to write an explanation for this blog. She was kind enough to agree. -MF]
Thank you to Michael Froomkin for asking me to guest blog here about the controlled choice issue which has come up at the Coral Gables Forum candidates’ debates.
Controlled choice school assignment initiatives attempt to guide or “control” student school assignments in a region while also giving parents some choice in the matter by asking them to rank their school assignment preferences. Controlled choice programs are said to maximize parental investment in the public school system—even when parents do not receive their first choice, the active selection of their second or third ranked school will encourage them to attend those schools if they are assigned them. Controlled choice programs are often used in school districts where residential segregation results in school segregation that a school district is eager to address, with the most famous controlled choice program probably being the two that were challenged before the Supreme Court in 2007.1
Not surprisingly, then, controlled choice in Coral Gables has its origins in the 1970s, when Miami-Dade was under court orders to integrate its public schools. In the late 1990s, the Miami-Dade County Public School (MDCPS) system adopted a controlled choice model under which a majority of Coral Gables parents do not have a home school dictated by where they live. Instead, parents have to rank their preferences among Coral Gables Preparatory Academy, Carver Elementary, and Sunset Elementary, and then enter a lottery that will determine their assignment.
Court supervision of desegregation and integration of Miami-Dade ended in 2001 when a federal judge concluded that the district had eradicated symptoms of the once-segregated system. Unfortunately, residential areas in Miami-Dade, including Coral Gables and neighboring Coconut Grove and South Miami, are still heavily segregated. This led to a resegregation trend in Miami-Dade public schools, just as activists predicted when opposing the release of court supervision in 2001. In fact, just last year, the Miami Herald found that tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students attend class in schools that would have been characterized as segregated during the thirty years federal courts monitored Miami-Dade’s integration efforts.
In Coral Gables, demographics at the three schools reflect some racial isolation, particularly for white and black students: at Carver Elementary, 21% of students are black, and only 11% are white. In contrast, only 3% of students at Sunset Elementary are black, while 36% of the students are white. Most egregiously, 14% of students at Gables Preparatory are white, while the percentage of black students at the school is zero. As in, none.
It is against this background that the debate regarding controlled choice in Coral Gables must be considered. It is unclear what role controlled choice was playing in ensuring any kind of racial diversity in the three schools. Although the district has not been willing to share its analytical data, it is at least plausible that the lottery enabled the enrollment of students in schools other than their nearest school, and that that enrollment may have resulted in increased diversity. Carver, for example, does not benefit from the same reputation that Gables Prep and Sunset enjoy, due, in part, to the school’s fluctuating letter grade, its location on the other side of US-1, and its racial composition.2 Many parents, however, reluctantly attend Carver through the lottery, only to end up loving the school and their child’s educational experience there.3 Similarly, it is plausible that black students who would be assigned to Carver under a neighborhood assignment plan would have an opportunity, through the controlled choice lottery, to instead attend highly sought-after Sunset or Coral Gables Prep. Although no black students currently attend Gables Prep, it is unclear whether that is because no black students in the lottery selected the school, whether no black students were randomly assigned Gables Prep in the lottery, or whether any assigned black students subsequently transferred out of the school.
Undaunted, however, by the lack of concrete data about how a release from controlled choice might impact diversity, the Coral Gables City Commission formally requested that MDCPS release Coral Gables–the last region in Miami-Dade County where controlled choice remained in effect–from controlled choice. Under the elimination of controlled choice, new attendance boundaries would be drawn allowing students to attend one of the three school based primarily on proximity. In an attempt, however, to respond to parent concerns about the impact of the release on current assignments, the Commission also requested that currently enrolled students be “grandfathered-in” so that they remain in their currently assigned schools through graduation. In an attempt to be responsive to issues of diversity, the Commission also reaffirmed a commitment to Carver Elementary, suggesting that the school become a mini magnet for foreign language to both provide an alternative to the highly sought-after language magnet at Sunset Elementary, and ensure a neighborhood feeder for Carver Middle, Florida’s top-rated middle school.
On February 26th, Coral Gables’s request was reviewed by the MDCPS Attendance Boundary Committee, which voted in favor of ending controlled choice in Coral Gables, but also concluded it was without jurisdiction to approve a magnet at Carver. On March 5th, the City’s request was then reviewed by the school district’s Diversity, Equity and Excellence Advisory Committee, which voted against Gables’s request for reasons that are not yet clear. The ultimate decision on releasing Coral Gables from controlled choice will be made in June by the full school board.
So, what does this mean for the candidates? Well, that all depends on the aspects of the controlled choice controversy on which you choose to focus.
Controversy regarding controlled choice is a perennial issue—parents often complain about the administrative hassle of entering the lottery, of not knowing until well into the summer which school they will be assigned, and about the burden of potentially having to pass a neighborhood school to attend another school across town. Candidates, therefore, might be assessed on how quickly they chose to respond to the issue this year, and on whether they did so in the appropriate matter. Although many parents are delighted that the City Commission, including incumbents Jim Cason (Mayor), and Frank Quesada (Commissioner, Group IV), decided to formally oppose controlled choice, many parents believe the process was rushed and parental notification inadequate. It was clear from some of the meetings held on the matter that the Commission was caught off guard not only by the virulence with which some parents opposed a release from control choice, but also by the (negative) racialized nature of commentary opposing a change that would force parents to attend less-white Carver. Accordingly, as a voter, I have questions about whether the incumbents properly gauged community sentiment about controlled choice (as opposed to responding to a small but vocal group of parents), and about whether they understood the larger racial context in which debates about controlled choice must necessarily take place. When assessing challengers on this metric, I might think about what their track record for more deliberative democracy is, and ask about whether they would have handled the controlled choice issue any differently.
There is also the larger issue of diversity in our schools. Although formal segregation has long been dismantled, it is no secret that enduring residential segregation in Miami leads to enduring school segregation, a reality reflected in the racial makeup of schools in the controlled choice boundary for Coral Gables. The very factor, however, that prompts school segregation is the same obstacle to its remedy—absent significant busing, the current demographic make-up of the Gables makes it difficult to ensure our neighborhood schools are appreciably integrated. MDCPS insists, for example, that the elimination of controlled choice will have no significant impact on the racial demographics of any of the three implicated schools. Such a prediction does not seem to take into account the potential increase in white flight on account of forced assignment to Carver. But even assuming the District is correct, what should Coral Gables do about diversity and inclusion in its public schools? What obligation does the Commission have to consider diversity and inclusion when making decisions that impact the school and larger community? What obligation does the Commission have to broach and discuss with its residents issues of race and class in the “city beautiful”? Ultimately, the answers to these questions will matter most to me when making my assessments; candidates who can show they understand how inequality, racial or otherwise, operates in the Gables, and who are prepared to discuss that reality with courage and clarity are the candidates who are sure to get my vote.
Osamudia James is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law, where she writes and teaches in the areas of Torts, Administrative Law, Education Law, Law and Inequality, and Identity. You can follow her on twitter @OsamudiaJ.
Frank Queseda has an active Facebook page which refers you to http://www.FrankCQuesada.com/, which forwards automatically to a campaign webpage which, as of this writing, sports on the front page the announcement that “Election Day is April 12, 2011. 00 Days until election.”
Challenger Enrique Lopez’s site is up and running — but beware, because clicking on that link will start a video with some pretty loud music. Plus the issues page is little more than a placeholder, although it promises more to come:
In short order, I will expand on these and others and publish them on this website and all my campaign literature so that all voters will know where I stand on the issues, my action tasks on how to address them and my commitment to seeing that happen in harmony with a majority of fellow elected officials.
We’re waiting…. the first Group IV debate is this coming Monday.
The Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce will be having a marathon candidates’ forum on March 31st at the University of Miami Fieldhouse. Doors open at 5:30 with the Group IV debate at 6pm; then it’s group V, and ending with the Mayoral candidates. I’m going to guess an hour each, since the event ends at 9pm.
The Chamber of Commerce candiate forum web site invites attendees to register (free) by March 27th — but I’m betting they’ll let you in even if you don’t RSVP.
It’s unfortunate for me that the event overlaps a little with the terrific Data Privacy and Security Law Summit being held on campus all day on the 31st. Fortunately, I’m just doing the welcome at the start of the event, so I guess I can duck out at the end.
In case you were looking for them, here’s an updated list of the campaign web sites for the candidates in the Coral Gables Commission election for Group V:
There are also active Facebook pages for several candidates, but I’m not a Facebook user so I’m afraid you’re on your own there.
The Coral Gables Mayoral Candidates (technically, Group I), had a debate sponsored by the Coral Gables Forum on Monday night. I went down to Coral Gables TV to get a copy of their recording of it. Turns out that I needn’t have bothered: thanks to quick work by the CGTV guys you can see the whole thing on YouTube.
For that decreasing fraction of the population that prefers to read stuff rather than watch videos, I thought I’d offer my reactions below. Since the whole video is now available to everyone, not just Comcast and AT&T cable subscribers, I don’t think I will bother with a pseudo-transcript as I have in the past.
Before starting, though, I should state my predispositions. Unlike Group V, where I went in with absolutely no idea how I was going to vote (see Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates), I came to this debate with some views about both candidates. Both have been around the block a few times: Jim Cason is of course the incumbent, and Ralph Cabrera previously served on the Commission; he also ran unsuccessfully against Cason two years ago – so this is a rematch election.
Back in 2013 I wrote a post trying sum up the pros and cons for both candidates. I wasn’t overwhelmed by or against either, but ended up “leaning Cabrera. But just a bit.” I certainly wasn’t a big Cabrera fan, and I wrote that I could understand why some people, with different policy preferences (i.e. those who valued balancing the books above all) might like Cason.
Since then, however, there has been one major event in Coral Gables that has very strongly soured me on Jim Cason – and should bother you too. It transpired that the then-City Manger (the most important official in town) had been hiding traffic accident data from the Commission. From a distance it is not clear whether he did this at Mayor Cason’s direction, or with Cason’s connivance, or if Cason was unaware of it until after the fact. What isn’t debated is that Cason supported the City Manger even after the deception came to light.
To me, that’s more than just a policy dispute or a case of bad judgment. That’s subverting democracy. It’s fundamental. And Mayor Cason’s failing to see that is a big black mark in my book. So, even though I have never been a big Ralph Cabrera fan, I went into the debate leaning strongly his way. You might want to discount what follows accordingly.
Once again, the debate was moderated by Coral Gables resident Channel 4 TV journalist Elliot Rodrigez.
My overall impression about the debate was that it was slightly mean and not all that informative. It was striking that – other than in his closing — Cason time and again tried to frame the issues not as being about his own successes, but about problems not having been solved back when Cabrera was a Commissioner. When an incumbent spends more time trying to tear down his challenger (who has been out of office for some years) than he does boasting about his own record, that’s a tell. Then again, Cabrera too was punching fairly hard, although you’d expect that from a challenger.
The first big topic – crime – showed both candidates’ unattractive side. Both of them want to look as anti-crime as possible. Both took shots against the other: Cason said crime was higher back when Cabrera was on the Commission, which seemed like a cheap shot. Cabrera said condescendingly that he was glad Cason was finally talking about crime. Cabrera scored a point in calling for more lighting in the northern part of Coral Gables. Cason said Cabrera’s proposals were things that the city is already doing – although he undercut himself with one of his examples being that someone not-yet-hired would be working on lighting. Both candidates came out for installing surveillance cameras – license plate readers, although Cabrera’s repeated references to keeping out “the criminal element” grated badly.
Fact is that whether crime is ticking up or ticking down, we’re just not having a crime wave. The crime issue may poll well, leading both candidates to pander on the issue, but myself I just can’t get excited; this isn’t what the election should be about.
The discussion of the development issue – a much bigger deal in my opinion – got less time than it deserved. Neither candidate got very specific. Cabrera said he supports planned development, balance, and noted a need to revise the gables master plan – but didn’t have time for details. Cason seemed oddly nervous on this topic, said there is a master five-year plan to look at traffic issues. Perhaps the reason was that he expected Cabrera’s zinger, which came on the followup about the Agave project, in which Cabrera said Cason’s first eight $1,000 campaign contributions were from Agave – how can he be objective about it?
Otherwise, we had the usual suspects, Streetscape, pensions, Fire Station #1, controlled choice. Cabrera was convincing that the Gables needs to take better care of its infrastructure (the Fire Station #1 building is in such danger of collapse, the Fire Dept. won’t park a truck in it!). On pensions the only news was that Cason now seems to think he’s wrung what he can from the workers, and that some of the unfunded obligations will need to be funded out of general revenues. I found that a welcome change from his past position. Both candidates said controlled choice is history, and they’re fine with that, although Cabrera cautioned that the change needs be done in a way that won’t reduce residents’ access to local magnet schools.
On a less expected issues, like the environment, neither candidate was specific at all. Both candidates said they were for the environment. Cabrera did attack the fire fee as a regressive tax, and any candidate who opposes regressive taxes gets a point from me.
There was a little more light when the candidates returned to the development issue after a question on how to attract young professionals to the city. Cason repeated his line – a good one – about making Coral Gables a foodie destination. Trouble is, it’s the same line he used two years ago, and the promised changes, such as Streetscape, are still in the future. That’s not primarily Cason’s fault, but it the line doesn’t wear as well with repetition. Cabrera’s response was interesting, although I don’t know how realistic it is. Cabrera argued that the problem is that young people can’t afford to move here; plus, the planned development in the NE quadrant will continue to price people out as the duplexes and apartment buildings there are going away. “There is something wrong with that.” We need, he said, housing for people who are working here, people starting families. Other than slowing the destruction of affordable housing, he didn’t supply much of an idea of how to achieve that.
More generally, although both candidates said they supported long-range planning, Cabrera said it a bit better. He sounded like he meant it when he complained that “we have no long-term vision.” Instead, he said, everything is short term, one project at a time. We need balance, and master plan, and attention to infrastructure such as sewerage in the CBD. Cason’s response that we have multiple master plans looking ahead for youths, seniors, and transportation didn’t seem to quite grapple with the idea that maybe a bigger vision was needed.
Cabrera returned to the campaign contributions issue towards the end of the debate, noting multiple contributions from developers to Cason, and suggesting developers supported Cason because when it comes to development Cason is (in my words not his) a pushover. On the one hand, the idea that the pugnacious Cason is a pushover on anything was sort of funny. On the other hand, when it comes to development, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might not be true. Cason’s response was half tu quoque (some
developersarchitects contributed to Cabrera) and half that the projects are in fact meritorious and are supported by their neighbors. In rebuttal Cabrera said that one of his developer contributors was an old friend from Little League, another a long time client (this is good???). More importantly, Cabrera promised to ‘hold developers’ feet to the fire’ and disputed Cason’s claim that neighbors of Agave are all for it – but just as things were getting interesting, time ran out.
In the closing statement Cason finally started to talk about his achievements and his plans for the next two years – but then ran out of time despite it being rehearsed. Cabrera talked of his roots in the city, said he’s not beholden to special interests and will “ask the difficult questions.” (Cabrera also said he wants to move election day to November to increase participation.)
So quite some heat, a trickle of light. As I said above, I went in leaning to Cabrera, and although parts of the debate reminded me why I’ve never been his greatest fan, I did think he made a much better case for himself than two years ago, especially in the parts where he talked about having to take a long-run view of city planning. There were not a lot of specifics, but I like the tone. Cason is still Cason, but he seemed off his game compared to past campaigns. I wonder if he’s seen a bad poll?
At the end of it all, I came out with no new reason to forgive Cason for his support of the former City Manager’s bad behavior, and slightly more positive about Cabrera than when I went in–mostly for his stance on the development issue. So I score this debate a clear win for Cabrera, although not a knock-out.