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The South Florida Roundup

A new superintendent, party affiliations being changed and pharmaceuticals in our bonefish

Broward County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright attends a School Board meeting at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Building in Fort Lauderdale on July 28.
Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald
Broward County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright attends a School Board meeting at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Building in Fort Lauderdale on July 28.

The old interim is the new superintendent for Broward County Public Schools, allegations of unknowing voter affiliation changes, and drugs found in Key Biscayne and Key's fauna.

Broward County Public school teachers, students and parents got a new permanent boss. She is the same temporary boss they have had this school year.

The Broward school board voted 7-2 to name Vickie Cartwright as the new superintendent of schools, a position she has held on an interim basis since August.

With her new position, Cartwright plans to take action she previously was unable to do as the interim superintendent. She wants to start filling the vacancies they have on the cabinet, starting with the most senior leadership.

“It’s very difficult when you are an interim to attract and recruit quality candidates for those positions,” Cartwright said.

As soon as possible, she’d like to recruit a new chief of school safety and security, chief academic officer and chief of facilities.

Broward County Public Schools enrollment levels are still down compared to pre-pandemic levels. Cartwright says they’ve been partnering with many organizations to increase their outreach efforts.

“The last thing we want is a child that's at home because mom and dad or guardians or caregivers are scared to send them to school.”

Alongside enrollment, a potential cut in funding and criticism are also on the new superintendent’s plate.

WLRN’s education reporter Kate Payne asked Cartwright how she will address those critical of her resignation as Oshkosh’s superintendent in Wisconsin and of her COVID precautions in Broward. She stood by the Broward School Board’s decision to make a mask mandate for the students last August.

Cartwright explained that the concerns brought up should’ve been disproved by her performance in Broward in the past six months. She also said that dealing with COVID requires flexibility because you never know how the situation might change.

In regards to the mask mandate, she said that as superintendent it is her job to implement the will and policy of the board.

In Tallahassee, a proposal in the House’s budget named “Putting Parents First” has suggested reducing state funding to school districts that instituted strict mask mandates, which would include Broward. If this goes through, the county could lose more than $30 million, according to Cartwright. She said this would be detrimental to the school system.

“What they're doing is withholding salaries of individuals that provide critical services to our students like food nutrition,” she said. “So this is going to be a huge impact and unfortunately, who's going to pay for it? Our students.”

Party affiliations being changed unwillingly and unknowingly

According to WPLG Local 10’s Glenna Milberg, the daughter of a lifelong Democrat in Little Havana, reached out in December. She said that all of a sudden, her mother had received a new voter I.D. in the mail saying she was a Republican.

Milberg did some digging for the family, finding out that some canvassers did approach her at some point asking if she wanted to update her voter information. It was supposed to be a weird one-off story.

However, it didn’t end there.

“As soon as that story hit air, we just started getting calls from other people,” Milberg said. “Some people came to my door, they were very nice, they were official … And this pattern started to emerge.”

Several Miami-Dade voters have come forward to say the political party on their voter registration was switched without their knowledge or approval.

Milberg said that the affected individuals she’s come in contact with are all senior super-voters that never miss an election. They’re all Spanish-speaking Democrats.

They get visited and their party affiliation gets switched to Republican. But who exactly are these canvassers?

Milberg said they found the canvassers all wore the same I.D., stating they were from the Republican Party of Florida. The Republican Party of Florida said in statements that they are not affiliated with these canvassers.

WLRN’s Danny Rivero said across the board, local election officials are quite concerned. The State Attorney’s Office and Miami-Dade’s Supervisor of Elections are all providing information and looking into the situation.

State Democrats in other areas are calling for investigations, with state senator Annette Taddeo saying this seems to be a statewide issue as more information comes out.

State Republicans are feeling pressure, as they could be benefiting from this whether they’ve had a hand in this or not.

“The Republican Party of Florida just very recently celebrated the fact that they’ve overtaken registered Democrats in the state for the first time since I believe the Reconstruction Era,” Rivero said.

Rivero spoke with Miami-Dade Commissioner Rene Garcia, the head of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. He said this was happening with both parties being affected by third parties coming into the state to change voter registration.

He asked for a comprehensive investigation to deal with this on both sides. Both Milberg and Rivero have asked for evidence of Republicans being switched over to Democrats because they haven’t found any direct evidence.

“I also contacted the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which in turn told me emphatically, that they have never heard anything of the sort that Republicans in Miami-Dade County are getting switched unknowingly to the Democratic Party,” Rivero said.

Milberg said this case seems quite layered, with seemingly any office being the one to pick it up. If there is a criminal statute broken, then the State Attorney’s Office would take the case. If there are election finance laws that have broken, then the Elections Department would take the case.

“In politics, the money trail is so byzantine, and politicians and PACs who are really good at this can hide trails of money through different PACs and different banks,” Milberg said. “To follow that for people looking for legitimacy is very difficult.”

Pharmaceuticals being found in bonefish and our water

The shady silver bonefish slipping around in the flats is part of the mystique of the Florida Keys. The grey ghosts.

And new research finds plenty of pharmaceuticals in those fish. Nicholas Castillo, a PhD candidate at FIU’s Coastal Fisheries Lab, is the leader of the project behind this research with Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and he detailed how widespread this contamination is.

“We tested bonefish from Biscayne Bay all the way through Key West and west of Key West, that’s 93 fish, and every single fish had at least one pharmaceutical with an average of about seven per fish,” Castillo said.

He said the pharmaceuticals make it to the fish because traditional waste water treatment doesn’t remove them.

Water from treatment systems that don’t remove the drugs can cause these contaminants to persist in the water, and the fish ingest them from eating and breathing.

The drugs that we take everyday don’t fully metabolize in our bodies, so they remain active when we excrete them.

The same way anti-anxiety medication and other drugs change behavior in humans, they may do the same for the bonefish. This change in behavior can have them becoming more bold, or they might not evade predators efficiently, and their spawning migrations may change, Castillo said.

The bonefish decline was the initial reason they decided to look into the presence of pharmaceuticals in the marine environment. Bonefish are also incredibly popular for recreational fishing in South Florida, which also adds more reason to test them.

“They live in a coastal ecosystem, so by testing the bonefish we’re not just learning about bonefish, we're learning about the conditions that all the other fish in the same environment are experiencing,” Castillo said.

Captain Bob Branham is a Biscayne Bay guide who has been fishing the Florida Key flats for decades, and the news has shocked him.

“We look at the water in the Keys, it’s clear and you think, oh this is pristine this is beautiful, and that’s not really the case,” he said. “This is just one more thing to point out that there are problems in South Florida with the water.”

WLRN’s Jenny Staletovich has been following the efforts to clean the nearshore in the Keys and other areas for decades now. She said that in addition to the pharmaceuticals, the other contaminates have also been killing seagrass and has led to this cascading effect.

Castillo said there is evidence that pharmaceuticals are in our drinking water since they don’t get fully removed and treated, and they may be also in the fish we eat. In these cases, the immediate risk is low because their concentrations are so low.

“The unknown is what happens with continuous exposure over the course of a human’s lifetime … That’s a question that remains and is something to think about,” he said.

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Natu Tweh is WLRN's Morning Edition Producer. He also reports on general news out of South Florida.