dorothy-bendross-mindingall_web.jpgThe race to replace longtime Miami-Dade School Board member Solomon Stinson has gotten more crowded.  In addition to Stinson’s rumored choice to replace him, Ronda Vangates, and longtime school employee Vanessa Woodard Byers, the race has also attracted former state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Bendross-Mindingall, a former elementary school teacher and principal, told the South Florida Times during a telephone interview, “Education is my passion. I’ve been a teacher all my life.”

The Tuskegee University graduate was elected to the House in 2000, reelected in 2004, and termed out of office in 2008. While there, she chaired the Democratic Policy committee for two years; and served on the Democratic Education Council from 2004 to 2006. She was also involved with the Schools and Learning Council, The Committee on K-12, the Committee on State Affairs and the Policy and Budget Council.

“The entire time I was in the Legislature, I championed education issues,” she said.

When asked about Stinson’s apparent endorsement of Vangates, Bendross-Mindingall, 67, initially declined to comment, but later called the South Florida Times to state that “it’s up to the voters.”

Efforts to reach Stinson, who has decided not to seek reelection, were unsuccessful. In a written statement announcing her candidacy, Vangates states that Stinson “has decided to throw his hefty and influential support behind a local attorney and administrator, Ronda A. Vangates.”

Vangates, 38, a non-practicing attorney, is employed as director of performance improvement, curriculum and instruction with the Miami-Dade school system. She is also third vice president for the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP.

Vangates has also served as chief of staff to the late school board member William “Bill” Turner, an aide to state Sen. Frederica S. Wilson, chief of staff to former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and chief of policy to former Miami-Dade Commission Chairperson Barbara Carey-Shuler.

She was thrust into the local limelight in 2006 when the star running back at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Vangates’ alma mater, was accused of having sex with a 14-year-old girl on a school bathroom floor. 

The Miami native was accused of trying to cover up the district’s handling of the matter. A grand jury found that the school’s principal and several other school employees were aware of the incident, which happened in September 2006, but failed to do anything about it until the girl’s mother reported it to police in December of that year.

At issue was an email sent by Vangates to the school’s then-principal, Dwight Bernard, and other school employees stating that she had directed Miami-Dade School police to discontinue their investigation of the sexual allegation.

Vangates later explained to the grand jury that she thought then-Superintendent Rudy Crew’s office would handle the investigation, not the police – an explanation the grand jury found preposterous.

Her involvement in the fiasco came to a head when a school consultant accused Vangates of attempting to cover up the scandal. That incident resulted in Vangates removing her shoes and lunging toward Larry Costanzo.  Staff members physically restrained her.

When reached for comment for this story, Vangates emailed a press statement. She did not respond to an emailed request to address the Northwestern scandal.

“If we are to move our community forward, we must begin by investing in our children, all of our children. Every child in this community deserves a high-quality education, my job will be to demand just that,” Vangates said in her statement.  

Also in the race is Woodard-Byers, 52, who is employed in the school system’s attendance office.  She also writes about current events and issues affecting black people in Miami on the popular, “Blogging Black Miami” site. 

Efforts to reach Woodard-Byers by press time were unsuccessful. Woodard-Byers has $5,000 in campaign funds, all of which she loaned to her campaign.  Vangates’ campaign account had $100, a contribution from a Broward supporter, and Bendross-Mindingall had received $13,500, $10,000 of which is a loan from the candidate.

Bendross-Mindingall said she’s not certain how much she will need to run a successful campaign, but said she’s confident she will raise it, whatever the amount. She said she has already seen volunteer grassroots efforts sprout up to support her.

“My record speaks for itself,” she said.

That record, she says, is largely built on her diligent efforts to improve parental involvement in children’s education.

“I feel strongly that my background in bringing parents to aid their children in becoming properly educated, I feel that I do that probably better than most,” she said.

She said her work with parents has extended beyond how children are schooled, and is actually helping to break the cycle of poverty.

“I have had a program for over 20 years where I got mothers off of welfare. They came to my school as a principal and worked with their children and saw how great it was to be around their children and teachers,’’ she said. “And many of them got high school diplomas and decided to go on to college. Several of them have master’s degrees and are employed in the school system.’’

The program, Labor in Love, has had several success stories. One of them is Alecia Pope, whom Bendross-Mindingall said has three jobs and a daughter in college.

Bendross-Mindingall said another youth whose mother participated in the program recently graduated from Bethune-Cookman University, and is returning to get his master’s degree. He will be joined by his younger brother, who will be enrolling as a freshman in the fall.

“I have an opportunity to stand for children. I believe that I know a lot about educating children [and] that my forcefulness will be needed on the school board.  This is a perfect fit for me as a lifelong educator.”

Photo: Former state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall