Keys school board watchdog faces challenger

Coral Shores High School is in District 5, which Sue Woltanksi was elected to represent on the Monroe County School Board in June.
Coral Shores High School is in District 5, which Sue Woltanksi was elected to represent on the Monroe County School Board in June.

More than half way through John Dick’s first term as a Monroe County School Board member, the district became embroiled in what remains the largest financial corruption scandals in recent Keys history.

Dick was one of the most vocal critics of then-superintendent Randy Acevedo at the time, even before the extent of the thievery and and misuse of funds happening under his watch, and with his knowledge, became known in 2009.

John Dick.jpg
John Dick

And, when it turned out Acevedo’s now-ex-wife, Monique Acevedo, then head of the district’s adult education program, was siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars from the school system, Dick pushed for the criminal investigation that not only led to her spending eight years in prison and the conviction of Randy Acevedo for felony obstruction, but also an overhaul of the entire administrative staff.

Dick, 71, blames predecessors on the school board for creating an atmosphere that allowed the Acevedos, and others high-up in the administration offices, to pilfer money from the district coffers for years unabated. Even before the scandal was uncovered, Dick fiercely scrutinized dollars going toward the classroom versus money flowing to those working at district headquarters on Trumbo Road.

“When I was first elected to the board, I was the driving force in cleaning up the financial mess that lack of oversight by the previous board had created,” Dick said.

At the time, staffers at the administrative level had district-issued credit cards that they used with little to no oversight. Monique Acevedo used hers to rack up close to half a million dollars in purchases for her and her family.

Dick is running for re-election for his District 4 seat against longtime educator Jim Doran. The race will be decided in the Aug. 28 primary, early voting for which began Aug. 13. District 4 runs from Key Colony Beach in the Middle Keys north to Plantation Key in the Village of Islamorada.

Dick said his other achievements during his three terms on the dais include working toward making Keys teachers the highest paid in the state and getting new schools and sports facilities built.

The average teacher’s salary in Monroe County is now more than $56,800, according to an interactive map compiled by television station WTSP in Tampa, compared to around $40,000 in Panhandle districts like Franklin County. Monroe starts new teachers with no experience at $47,800, Lynsey Saunders, spokeswoman for the school district, said.

Dick said his next goal is to make Monroe the number-one rated district in the state.

“With higher salaries and newer facilities, the environment is in place for us to move up to number-one , and I think it’s already started as we are back to an ‘A’ rated district,” Dick said. “So, I wanted to be re-elected to make sure we stay on that current path.”

A Vietnam war veteran active in local veterans causes, Dick is a former college and career counselor at Marathon High School, where his wife still teaches and one of his daughters is the dean of students.

He cited school safety in the wake of last school year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland as the most pressing issue facing the district.

“We need to have the personnel in place to guard our students, and we have to make the necessary changes to our buildings to make them safe and secure without turning them into prisons,” Dick said.

Doran, 69, said he chose to run when Ron Martin, a popular former teacher and principal of Coral Shores High School, chose not to run for another term.

Jim Doran

“I realized that when Ron was off the board, there would not be an educator left on the school board,” Doran said. “Our children need an experienced, knowledgeable and passionate educator at the table.”

Doran has five decades experience as a teacher, principal and educational leader at schools in Florida and abroad. His wife, with whom he has two adult children, also taught school and is a retired school librarian.

“I want to pay it forward and take Monroe County schools to the next level to bring the highest benefits to our students,” Doran said.

Doran began his teaching career at Key Largo School in 1972. He was named “Teacher of the Year” in 1975, and he started the school’s Safety Patrol, which thrives to this day. Since then, he has taught in the elementary, middle, high school, college and graduate levels in Florida and in seven countries. He has three degrees in education, including a doctorate from University of Central Florida.

He is a flotilla officer of operations with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and a diver who volunteers with the Coral Restoration Foundation, which plants new corals on the Keys reef.

One of the two most pressing issues facing the district, in his opinion, is that too many educational decisions are being made at the administrative level without enough input from teachers.

“The professionals in the classroom are the experts, yet are often ignored or forgotten when educational decisions are proposed and then implemented,” he said. “The school board must develop systems that involve our teachers in the educational decision-making process especially at the classroom level, from the very beginning.”

Both he and Dick say another major issue in the Keys is enough affordable housing for teachers and school staff.

“To have strong schools, we must hire and retain the best teachers. Unless our teachers can live comfortably, save for their children’s further education and prepare for retirement, our schools will always struggle to find and keep the best,” Doran said. “I would ask that the board explore all options that would attract and retain the best teachers. Our students deserve no less.”

Sue Woltanski

The only other spot on the board up for election this year was District 5, which retired pediatrician Sue Woltanski won unopposed at the end of the ballot qualifying period June 22. She announced Friday that she donated the unused portion of her $5,529 in campaign contributions.

In all, Woltanski, whose two children attend school in the district, donated $3,000 to the Plantation Key School PTA, the Rotary Club of Key Largo, the Upper Keys Band Boosters and Treasure Village Montessori School.