What a Difference a Year Makes
On November 7, 2016, the nation saw a change in the White House after eight years of leadership from Democratic Pres- ident Barack Obama. The change also brought what many thought was a stunning upset as Republican Presidential Nominee Donald J. Trump defeated Democratic Presiden- tial Nominee and political icon Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite Clinton outpacing Trump by almost 2.9 million votes in which more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than any other losing presidential candidate in US history. As the 2016 Presidential election reality began to set in, many turned their attention to local politics and the fact that the most significant elections are those at the com- munity level and have the greatest impact on people’s lives. In 2016, there was no election that seemed more watched and hotly contested than the Miami-Dade County School Board District 1 race between 9-year incumbent and vet- eran politician Wilbert T. Holloway and veteran education and political newcomer Dr. Steve Gallon III.
Holloway, 68, was appointed by the Governor in 2007 when he termed out of the Florida House. Gallon, 47, who may have been new to political office was no novice when it came to educa- tion. He served as a teacher, assistant principal, elementary principal, high school principal, district administrator, and first Black M-DCPS educator to ever rise to the level of Su- perintendent of Schools. The Gallon-Holloway contest was considered one of the closest local races watched among Black voters in Miami-Dade County on Election Day. Vot- ers came out in droves during early voting period and via vote by mail ballot to participate. Many attributed a signifi- cant portion of the Black turnout to Gallon who enjoyed what many political observers described as a unique “multi- generational” level of support, as well as the early support of individuals such as Betty Ferguson, Dr. Solomon Stinson, Attorney H.T. Smith, and his own pastor, Arthur Jackson III of Antioch of Miami Gardens. Gallon, who was a graduate and highly revered former principal of Miami Northwest- ern also saw his former students, their parents, and grand- parents come out to support him during the voting cycle, and within 15 minutes of the first voting tallies being re- ported on Election Day, it was clear that change was immi- nent in District 1. In fact, the shouts of Gallon for Change were victoriously heard from campaign and poll workers who were lined up outside the campaign office to turn in their supplies and collect their pay. Gallon saw his victory in sight when the first round of numbers came across the screen. The gap would be too wide for Holloway to close.
Gallon would go on to a decisive major upset as he gar- nered 65 percent of the 90,409 votes. This would not only give him an historic victory for a political newcomer go- ing up against an admired and revered political veteran in Holloway, but a resounding mandate from the people for change in the largely Black, underserved, and poor District 1 School Board seat. It would also send a message that seats of elected office belonged to the people and not the person in it at the time. Miami’s political landscape took notice. In fact, in anticipation of term limits affecting several lo- cal seats and prior to what many described as an implosion
That night, Gallon told the local media that his first order of business would be to conduct “a thorough, more in- depth assessment of the academic per- formance” in District 1, focusing on schools that have received an “F” grade in recent years. “I do think we need to sound the alarm and not remain silent on the under-performance over the last five years of the school district in that community,” Gallon said.
George Gonzalez, a University of Mi- ami political science professor, said the school board races illustrated the anti-establishment mood around the nation.
“The establishment had lost a signifi- cant amount of credibility with the public,” Gonzalez said. “Ten years ago, incumbents had the benefit of the doubt. Now, people are paying atten- tion and saying ‘no, I don’t like what’s going on’ and showing up to register their displeasure.”
Former FIU psychology professor Marvin Dunn said Gallon represented change. “He has some flash to him. He speaks directly to Black people who were not comfortable with Holloway’s style,” Dunn said. “Sometimes people just want change.”
And change they would get. As stated throughout his campaign, Gallon’s No. 1 priority was Carol City Middle School, which earned five F grades in a row, Gallon said. After participating in the required ceremony downtown at the School Board auditorium, he held a second swearing in ceremony at the school for the community to at- tend. There, Gallon with Superinten- dent Alberto Carvalho in attendance, called for adequate resources, support, partnerships, and effective teaching at the school. After five straight F’s, the school improved from an F to a C. Gallon vowed to make good on his pledge and promise to bring aware- ness and discussion about school per- formance in District 1 and throughout the County. His ability to translate statistics and develop plans for failing schools, a feat for which he was hailed as the top administrator in a New Jer- sey school district, was made mani- fest in his first Board agenda item in December 2016, immediately after his election. The Board agenda not only received unanimous support, but the unanimous “co-sponsorship” of each of his colleagues on the Board. Board agenda item H-5, which focused on “fragile” schools, marked a critical point in M-DCPS and the commu- nity. It shifted the District’s narrative from one that focused on accolades, achievements, and awards, to one that also recognized and gave attention to harsh, yet silent reality of persistent pockets of underperformance in cer- tain schools and communities, which were often poor and predominantly Black.
Gallon’s shift in M-DCPS’ public narrative translated into increased public discussions and focus on frag- ile schools by the School Board as well as on the resources and support that went into them. When the 2016 state letter grades were released, there were no more “F” school in Miami-Dade County. Gallon recognized the hard work and dedication of the School Board and Superintendent prior to his election, but also believes that educa- tion reform is not based on one thing, but is heavily dependent on candor, honesty, and awareness about what is happening and not happening in cer- tain schools and communities.
“I know that any educational reform and turnaround effort begins with awareness,” Gallon said. “Clearly, as a result of my platform and public pol- icy positions, people were much more aware of what perplexed our fragile schools. I believe that awareness in- creased accountability with everyone. When there’s improved accountabil- ity there’s improved results.” Gallon’s “awareness” campaign as a school
board member did not stop with fragile schools. He initiated highly watched policy discourse at the Board level with items ranging from student suspensions, Exceptional Student Ed- ucation, equity and access to gifted and talented programs for minority students, Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, provision of meals for students during mandated school clo- sures, and most notably and publicly, improved transparency and account- ability for the $1.2 billion dollar Gen- eral Obligation Bond Program (GOB). At the January 17, 2018 School Board Meeting Gallon will be proposing a measure for the Board to explore local sources to improve teacher salaries in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Gallon’s intellectual knack for educa- tional policy details has earned him high marks with some, but quiet criti- cism with others.
“Dr. Gallon knows and is able to artic- ulate the minutia of educational pol- icy in the District. Have you actually watched him at a board meeting? As a school board member, that has caused some degree of anxiety with some dis- trict staff members and perhaps even the Superintendent,” one employee re- marked on the condition of anonym- ity. “If they looked at his resume and leadership over the years, it should not have been a surprise to anyone.” Gallon also kept his promise for com- munity engagement through his highly attended Student of the Month Recognition Programs and highly in- formative quarterly Town Hall Meet- ings. This year he plans to continue his District 1 Black History Showcase which involves students in District 1 showcasing artistic talents through vi- sual arts, dancing, singing, and speak- ing. Last year, the event was standing room only and had to turn away hun- dreds who arrived late and could not be seated.
Gallon, who has taken unconven- tional approaches to shed light on is- sues such as the GOB and its lack of inclusion of underrepresented groups such as veterans, women, and Blacks,relied on the old adage that a “picture is worth a thousand words” when he visited a school construction site in his predominantly District, took photos, and posted them to Facebook with two words: Let’s see.
The photos revealed nearly 25 work- ers. None was Black. The next day the Superintendent announced new protocols for compliance and added additional staff for monitoring. “This has never been solely about race. It is about the Board’s policy, which is a great, righteous policy that was adopt- ed before I was elected, and one that considers various factors in a conver- sation about and commitment to in- clusion. To the extent that the policy is not implemented and promises are not kept, the public trust is inevitably eroded,” Gallon said. “There has been too many questions and not enough complete, documented, and validated answers when it comes to the GOB.” Answers for many of the questions surrounding the GOB should arrive soon. At its November 2017 School Board Meeting, the Board unanimous- ly approved a measured proposed by Gallon which would require the moni- toring, reporting, and auditing of GOB expenditures. The Board also approved a measure proposed by Board Member Maria “Mari Tere” Rojas calling for an outside audit of the GOB and its im- pact on the local community, includ- ing jobs created for underrepresented groups cited in its own Disparity Study. On the night of the election over a year ago, former School Board member Solomon Stinson, one of Gallon’s men- tors, said. “He’s the right man for the job at the right time.” By all accounts he has been.
When asked about which policy po- sition he is most proud of during his first year as a School Board Member, Gallon, who is a man of many words pauses and reflects. “Feeding the chil- dren,” he answers referring to the item and actions that followed Hurricane Irma that ravaged South Florida and left many without power and tens of thousands of poor children hungry. Gallon, who himself was with- out power for 9 days, has been largely credited with efforts during Hurricane Irma—from speaking directly on live television in his challenge of the bu- reaucratic “red tape” that left lines of elderly and children waiting hours to enter into hurricane shelters, to a late night e-mail he sent asking the Super- intendent about plans to feed children who were still out of school. Gallon, after giving out ice and water earlier that day said, along with the heat in his home, he couldn’t sleep thinking about the children and that’s simply what prompted the email. The next day Gallon, after making rounds to several radio stations to discuss the issue of post-storm meals for children, went to a public housing project in Opa-locka and personally gave out sandwiches, fruit, and water, along with volunteers that joined him. After his e-mail to the Superintendent, M-DCPS launched an effort to provide meals at schools. For two days, over 50,000 people were fed, according to the district.
“The Board’s support of that item ensured that we would never have to ask the question about feeding our children again—when we are long gone and the hurricanes still come,” Gallon said. “A policy position that focuses on feeding children is what I am most proud of.”
Gallon is not alone. At the National School Boards Association Coun- cil of Urban School Board’s Annual Award Luncheon, CUBE Chairman and Compton School Board Member Micai Ali applauded Gallon. “He was feeding the children out of the back of an SUV after the storm,” Ali said. “Dr. Steve Gallon III was feeding the children.”After Ali’s remarks, he presented Gallon with the prestigious Benjamin Elijah Mayes Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Urban Education. Dr. Steve Gallon III became the first school board member in Miami-Dade County Public Schools to ever receive it.