I’ve been following the campaign of Dr. Justin Koren for Miami-Dade School Board, District 9 after being invited by Ed MacDougall to monitor its progress. For someone who swore off school board politics it was a reach. Many would recall Ed as the former Mayor of the Town of Cutler Bay. He had occasion to work closely with Dr. Koren and gives all success to realizing Cutler Bay Senior High School to Justin. Mac is not apt to throw praise around lightly. This is also where I must import an oft use quote: ‘Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan’. Surely there are many people up and down the school district organization and the town deserving a percentage of credit. But every project starts with the first person. They are out on a limb until momentum is generated; this person was Dr. Justin Koren. The informal partnership between Koren and then Mayor MacDougall would ultimately create a future track for thousands of CBSHS students.
From my perspective, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the CBSHS accomplishment is knowing the greatest challenge facing the best administrator on even an average day is navigating the complex maze of School District procedures. Bringing a high school on line is difficult in and of itself—but doing it while combining the students of Cutler Ridge Middle and Centennial Middle Schools made it more complicated. I remember attending some contentious School Board meetings and predictably the most volatile would be school and boundary change agenda items. There were so many moving parts. This factor required Dr. Koren’s imaginative thinking early on—and with the kind of foresight seeing beyond the current day. It’s not easy to persuade anyone who doesn’t share the same vision—no matter the reason. It ‘got done’ because of Dr. Koren.
To me it’s somewhat ironic Justin was motivated to become a teacher following the sad demise of Jamie Gough inside Southwood Middle School in February, 2004. Justin is a Southwood alum and would later graduate from Coral Reef High School winning a Silver Knight Award. The indirect connection (we served the District at different times) linking us is difficult to put into words. The simplest way is to advise a few months after the worst day at Southwood I left my post as Chief of Police for the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department. What was a taxing event for me was a motivating event for Justin. He understood the need for a safe and secure campus even before he arrived home from Boston University. The way he tells it, the Southwood incident steered him away from a career of choice and back to Miami-Dade. Isn’t this exactly the kind of person we want leading our education system? His desire to take what he’s learned during fifteen years as an insider for a run for a Board seat piqued my attention—and I’ve monitored and admired him since. Through extensive conversation I came to know his commitment to both education and campus safety. You can’t teach and you can’t learn if attention is distracted or diverted. His was a genuine concern even before this dark time in our local neighborhoods.
In doing my due diligence on Justin, there were conversations with Chief Edwin Lopez and with Al Palacio, President of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 133. Al’s praise for Dr. Koren didn’t begin with his support of the school police. It started with: “…he’s genuine, personable, a great teacher and administrator and someone who students and parents love.” He reminded me: “…of the candidates running he’s the only one who came up through the system from the classroom to administrator.” In my mind this micro to macro experience can never be over stated.
Palacio went on: “…of the School Board candidates interviewed his [Koren’s] verbal support of police is based on dozens of past experiences with SROs [School Resource Officers] through the years.” School cops know well it is always the students and staff who best understand the difference they make and Dr. Koren has always strongly supported the need. Supporting the concept of school police was not always popular especially with those who are uninformed or worse—misinformed. In a perfect world school police aren’t necessary. The world is far from perfect—especially in this day and age.
We need only to look to Stoneman-Douglas to understand schools unmanned by dedicated SROs can become dangerous, especially in the climate of today. (I think it’s important to note the Broward School Board never opted for a proprietary police department). One of the more difficult challenges for the MDSPD is to constantly illustrate relevance. A best day for the School Police is one where a dangerous issue was resolved but never publicized. An issue deterred is not one which can be pointed to as justification. It’s a conundrum.
I’m pleased to advise Miami-Dade School Board Members through the years took time to learn the intricacies of providing a safe learning environment. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, acting on their behalf, is a committed believer and was an up and comer when I was Chief. He was and remains a visionary. I used to tell him he would be Superintendent one day and his appointment came sooner than many expected. The Board and District are all the better for Alberto and Edwin being there. I must know talent because I also handed young Edwin Lopez his first badge out of the police academy.
Having spent the better part of my 33 year career with the Miami-Dade Police Department, I’m absolutely clear the School Board having its own SROs ensures they are campus committed. Local police, be they county or municipal, could be pulled away for other priorities. MDSPD has thoroughly built a culture wherein campuses, students, employees, parents, activities and facilities are the primary concern for SROs.
I have been asked for my open support by a few candidates through the years. I always opted to keep a distance from School Board politics. This time it’s different. I can’t be a spectator this cycle. It’s too important. Expense is not always measured in dollars and cents and the safety and security of students and staff is frankly immeasurable. The truest cost, albeit one which we hope is never calculated, is in potential mental anguish and human misery. SROs are committed to making this cost zero out. My observations can be summarized this way: the School Board, the Superintendent and Chief Lopez are finally bringing safety and security to the next necessary level; they are on record with their plans for the future; and this is a time for elected leaders and candidates (no matter the office) to be strong and resist the current fad of ‘defunding the police’. Chaos would erupt. My own thought regarding MDSPD is how anyone could proffer defunding that which was never completely funded in the first place. MDSPD represents less than 1% of the total District budget. Even then it is frequently augmented with state and federal grants. Alberto and Edwin are moving safety and security in the right direction.
This brings me squarely back to Dr. Justin Koren. His record is clear in his determination to provide the best education while maintaining the safest learning environment. In this age you can’t have one without the other.
I am pleased to endorse Dr. Justin Koren—a previous Silver Knight winner, a Rookie Teacher of the Year, a respected school administrator, an avid advocate for security and safety—and another identified up and comer—to be the next Miami-Dade School Board Member for District 9.
Pete Cuccaro retired honorably from Miami-Dade Police Department later serving as the Chief of Police and Security for the Miami-Dade School District. He is a Life Member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and was part of their adjunct faculty. He is a Past President of the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police and served on the Board of Directors for the Florida Police Chiefs Association. As a co-founder of the Miami-Dade Police Memorial he serves ad hoc in an advisory capacity. He continues his longstanding membership in the Florida Sheriffs and the Florida Deputy Sheriffs Associations. He currently resides in Citrus County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.