On November 7, 2016, the nation saw a change in the White House after eight years of leadership from Democratic President Barack Obama. The change also brought what many thought was a stunning upset as Republican Presidential Nominee Donald J. Trump defeated Democratic Presidential 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 community 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 veteran 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 education. He served as a teacher, assistant principal, elementary principal, high school principal, district administrator, and first Black MDCPS educator to ever rise to the level of Superintendent 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. Voters came out in droves during early voting period and via vote by mail ballot to participate. Many attributed a significant 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 Northwestern also saw his former students, their parents, and grandparents come out to support him during the voting cycle, and within 15 minutes of the first voting tallies being reported on Election Day, it was clear that change was imminent 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 garnered 65 percent of the 90,409 votes. This would not only give him an historic victory for a political newcomer going 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 local seats and prior to what many described as an implosion of the Florida Democratic Party top leadership, Gallon, a registered Democratic, was asked to consider another elected office. When asked what office he was asked to consider, he replied with a guarded grin, “It doesn’t matter. I am the proud elected District 1 School Board member. That is now my focus---not seeking another elected office.”
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 performance” 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 Miami political science professor, said the school board races illustrated the anti-establishment mood around the nation.
“The establishment had lost a significant amount of credibility with the public,” Gonzalez said. “Ten years ago, incumbents had the benefit of the doubt. Now, people are paying attention 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 attend. There, Gallon with Superintendent 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 awareness and discussion about school performance 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 Jersey school district, was made manifest 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 MDCPS and the community. 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 under-performance in certain schools and communities, which were often poor and predominantly Black. Gallon’s shift in MDCPS’ public narrative translated into increased public discussions and focus on fragile 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 education reform is not based on one thing, but is heavily dependent on candor, honesty, and awareness about what is happening and not happening in certain 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 policy positions, people were much more aware of what perplexed our fragile schools. I believe that awareness increased accountability with everyone. When there’s improved accountability 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 Education, equity and access to gifted and talented programs for minority students, Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, provision of meals for students during mandated school closures, and most notably and publicly, improved transparency and accountability for the $1.2 billion dollar General 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 educational policy details has earned him high marks with some, but quiet criticism with others.
“Dr. Gallon knows and is able to articulate the minutia of educational policy 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 district staff members and perhaps even the Superintendent,” one employee remarked on the condition of anonymity. “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 community engagement through his highly attended Student of the Month Recognition Programs and highly informative quarterly Town Hall Meetings. This year he plans to continue his District 1 Black History Showcase which involves students in District 1 showcasing artistic talents through visual arts, dancing, singing, and speaking. Last year, the event was standing room only and had to turn away hundreds who arrived late and could not be seated. Gallon, who has taken unconventional approaches to shed light on issues 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 workers. 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 adopted before I was elected, and one that considers various factors in a conversation about and commitment to inclusion. 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 unanimously approved a measured proposed by Gallon which would require the monitoring, 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 impact on the local community, including 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 mentors, said. “He’s the right man for the job at the right time.” By all accounts he has been.
When asked about which policy position 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 children,” 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 without power for 9 days, has been largely credited with efforts during Hurricane Irma---from speaking directly on live television in his challenge of the bureaucratic “red tape” that left lines of elderly and children waiting hours to enter into hurricane shelters, to a late night email he sent asking the Superintendent 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 email to the Superintendent, MDCPS 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 Council 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.