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About 200 parents packed Key Biscayne’s K-8 school Monday, demanding that Miami-Dade school officials address safety and responsiveness issues, with parents sometimes rising to their feet and rebuking top officials from the school district. 

The main point of contention: the administration led by Principal Michelle Coto, who is wrapping up her second year at the school. 

The extraordinary two-hour meeting featured several top administrators from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, including Mari Tere Rojas, the school board member representing the district. Officials heard a litany of complaints ranging from unsafe student drop offs to an administration that allegedly is dismissive of both parents and teachers. The session in the school cafeteria was organized as a result of a meeting between Mayor Mike Davey and school officials. 

First grade teacher Sandra Manzieri, the teacher representative to the K-8 PTA, read from a list of 40 bullet points critical of the administration. Among her specific criticisms were “little or no supervision” at student drop off, a crowded cafeteria where there are “many student referrals due to fights and arguments,” and lack of engagement in school wide activities. 

“Teachers report that leadership has genuine dislike for the community and for teachers – claiming that we are ‘spoiled,’” she said. 

Dr. Michael Lewis, a regional school superintendent, presented a powerpoint on the K-8’s academics he said were above average, and said claims of inadequate student-teacher ratios were not borne out by statistics. He emphasized that all schools are facing challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Editors note: Lewis will be the guest on the Anti-Social radio and podcast Friday Mar. 11. The show airs live at 5 p.m. on Blink Radio, 94.5 FM WSQF.

“Where most schools showed regression, Key Biscayne showed progress,” Lewis said, noting that while enrollment has declined elsewhere in the county, the K-8’s enrollment increased to 1,065 students. 

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Michelle Coto, principal of the Key Biscayne K-8 Center, speaks with a parent after a contentious meeting where several parents and teachers complained about the school’s administration, Mon. Mar. 7, 2022. Coto said she was developing an action plan to address concerns. (KBI photo/Tony Winton)

PTA President Nicholas Cardoso tried –vainly at times– to keep order in the meeting. “Growth comes in discomfort,” he said. He pushed back on the class size numbers, noting that while average teacher-student ratios may appear good on average, there are trouble spots in specific classes and programs. “We need to look at each other’s data, use it to identify problems, and come up with a solution.” 

But the focus of the meeting seemed to center on Coto’s interactions. Some parents spoke of specific instances where Coto was unresponsive to parenting concerns.  

“I was just brushed off,” said Crista Perez, as many in the audience nodded. Another mother who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation said that many parents were troubled by an incident March 4, where very young children were left in a school breezeway without adult supervision at morning dropoff time. A video circulating among parents and verified by a PTA board member showed the children milling about with the only school adult being a far off crossing guard.

Coto was present but sat in the front row and did not speak at the meeting. She said she would develop an action plan to respond to the points raised in the meeting. 

“The main thing I heard was lines of communication. We’re going to work on that,” she said. 

Not everyone was critical of Coto’s administration, and supporters of the principal described the tone of the event as “school bashing.” 

Vivian Collongett, a 36-year teacher, praised Coto. “There are many teachers who are very happy, thrilled, and blessed to be working in this school and to be working under Ms. Coto.” 

Rojas, the school board member, said she holds regular office hours in Key Biscayne and only heard of the dissatisfaction a few weeks ago. She said she recently has received many parent emails and was working to address them. 

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow...