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Broward school board advances slightly different slate of superintendent semifinalists

Carl Juste Broward schools photo.jpeg
Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Cypress Bay High School students enter the campus in Weston on the first day of school in August.

The Broward County school board has advanced a slightly different slate of three semifinalists to be the next superintendent of the nation’s sixth largest district. After redoing their selection process on Tuesday, the board tapped two of their original top candidates and one new contender who didn’t make the semifinalist cut the first go-round.

Board members decided to do the semifinalist selection again after the South Florida Sun Sentinel questioned whether the board’s voting method during last week’s meeting may have violated state Sunshine laws. The board is scheduled to interview the top three candidates on Wednesday beginning at 10 am.

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The three semifinalists to be the next superintendent of Broward County Public Schools are:

  • Vickie Cartwright, interim superintendent of BCPS
  • Michael Gaal, former deputy chancellor of DC Public Schools and 25-year Air Force veteran
  • Quintin Shepherd, superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas

Broward schools is reaching the end of a months-long search process

BCPS is reaching the end of the months-long process to find a permanent replacement for former superintendent Robert Runcie, who resigned in April 2021 after being charged with a felony perjury count stemming from a grand jury investigation into the deadly shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

While some members of the public have criticized the district’s search process, Board Chair Laurie Rich Levinson defended it, saying the board has prioritized transparency and public involvement.

“I want to make it very clear that this schedule has been laid out for quite some time now. There's no rush as has been indicated, we're following exactly what we set out,” Levinson said. “We have afforded many more opportunities than districts throughout the state of Florida with the way they've conducted their superintendent searches.”

Cartwright, who took the helm in August 2021, has built a solid base of community support in her time on the job. Cartwright attracted national attention and got a personal call from President Joe Biden when she stood with the board on requiring masks in schools, in defiance of an order by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“[Cartwright] stood behind you when you were attacked by our elected governor. That's bravery,” said Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco, who is an outspoken Cartwright advocate and is listed as a reference on her job application.

“Bravery comes in a lot of different forms. Not just by serving in our military,” Fusco added, an apparent reference to the background of semifinalist Michael Gaal. “Sticking up for people, our students, our families. That's bravery, professionalism, decency.”

Members of the public debate Cartwright’s handling of the pandemic

Others called for new leadership in the district, voicing their frustrations over coronavirus precautions that disrupted daily life for students, many of whom are still struggling to overcome learning loss and behavioral issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Continuity is not the answer,” said Elon Gerberg, a member of Florida Fathers for Freedom who questioned the district's COVID-19 precautions. “Parents want bold leadership, not status quo. Parents want somebody who's willing to make a difference in the choices that Broward schools makes for our children. Parents want normal for their children.”

Still, the community support for Cartwright has been reflected in the board’s deliberations.

The board took an informal poll Tuesday to decide which candidates should get an interview; all nine board members voted for Cartwright. Gaal netted five votes and Shepherd got four.

Keith Oswald, Chief of Equity and Wellness for Palm Beach County schools, had been named a semifinalist during last week’s meeting and garnered three votes on Tuesday. Because board members opted on Tuesday to limit the semifinalist pool to three candidates, Oswald is no longer in the running.

WLRN reported last week that Oswald is accused of covering up for a principal who refused to say that the Holocaust is a historical fact.

Board debates the role of K-12 teaching experience, military service

One of the key issues discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was the importance of the next superintendent having teaching experience in a K-12 setting. While this was not a requirement in the district’s job description, it was listed a preferred qualification. As board members noted, it’s experience that semifinalist Michael Gaal lacks.

After a 25-year career in the Air Force, Gaal transitioned into education, most recently serving as president of ed tech company Beable. He’s also held leadership positions in DC Public Schools and the Oakland Unified School District.

Board Member Ann Murray argued other job experiences may be more important for the next superintendent, noting that not everyone on the board has K-12 teaching experience.

“Yes it's important that they understand the educational process. But life experience gives you the ability to be able to manage a system this large,” Murray said. “Education is our priority. But we have many facets of other issues as far as our operations side that has to be considered.”

Some board members also debated whether they were right to invoke veterans’ preference in granting Gaal an interview during last week’s meeting, with Board Member Sarah Leonardi questioning whether the board’s handling of the decision was “equitable and fair”. Regardless, the board chose to name him again as a semifinalist again on Tuesday.

Board will interview semifinalists Wednesday, take final vote next week

Board members plan to interview the three semifinalists one by one and in-person on Wednesday. If a candidate isn't able to get to Broward County in time to attend the meeting, board members plan to interview them virtually.

Board members will pose questions that have been discussed by the board and developed along with the search firm Ray and Associates, which is overseeing the process. The questions have also been shaped by public input through surveys and focus groups. Community members will have a chance to weigh in during a public comment period at Wednesday’s meeting.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter