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Broward school board names two finalists for superintendent

Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald

The Broward County school board has named its two finalists to be the next superintendent of the nation’s sixth largest school district. The top contenders are Vickie Cartwright, Broward’s interim superintendent, and Michael Gaal, a former deputy chancellor of DC Public Schools and a 25 year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

The board voted unanimously to advance the two candidates, after taking an informal poll in which two board members also lent support to semifinalist Quintin Shepherd, the superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas.

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The selection of the finalists comes after a months-long search process to find a permanent replacement for former superintendent Robert Runcie, who resigned in disgrace.

The district’s next leader will face the coronavirus pandemic, a massive school renovation project that’s over budget and behind schedule, and the legacy of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Cartwright argues she’s proven herself

Cartwright was the first to answer the board’s questions on Wednesday. With six months on the job as the leader of Broward County Public Schools, Cartwright pointed to her tenure in the community to make the case that she’s proven herself.

“I have a very deep résumé with a large amount of experience in very large urban districts. And I've been able to move the bar in a very large urban district for multiple ways,” Cartwright said. “I have the personal experiences. I also have the professional experiences in order to lead this district going forward.”

Cartwright also took the opportunity to reintroduce herself. Growing up in New Orleans, Cartwright says she and her family experienced a period of homelessness, but she said it was during that time that school band directors and church members helped her make it through.

“I persevered because of the power of those relationships,” Cartwright said. “On a personal level, I understand what it means for many of the struggles that our students go through on a daily basis. And our families go through on a daily basis. And our caregivers go through as well.”

Cartwright also spoke of her experience as a student with disabilities, with both a speech and language processing disability and a physical disability that required her to wear a brace. She credited teachers with helping ensure her needs were met and says those relationships shaped her as an educator and a leader. Cartwright herself went on to become a music teacher and band director before climbing the ranks as a principal, administrator and superintendent.

Cartwright told the board her guiding principle is to put “students first” and spoke of her work to address racial disparities in school discipline, to connect LGBTQ students to community allies and resources, and her efforts to use data to close achievement gaps.

When asked about student safety and mental health, Cartwright spoke of her efforts to address an increase in weapons being brought to schools and to develop an emergency communication and reunification plan for BCPS, working alongside local law enforcement agencies.

“There's a relationship being built. That is key,” Cartwright said. “That relationship must exist because through familiarity, conversations, we know how each other is going to react and act. And we're able to…when something happens, we're able to do that at a heightened level.”

Gaal touts military background, leadership style

Michael Gaal presented himself as a different kind of prospective superintendent. He was forthright about the fact that he is not a career public school teacher. But Gaal said that his 25 years in the Air Force was instructional experience, as he taught other pilots and instructors at a military teachers college.

Beyond showing him “what good instruction looks like,” Gaal said his military service taught him how to lead.

“The military taught me accountability. Being a fearless leader is required. Active decision-making must occur in order for us to move the system forward,” Gaal said. “The alignment on strategic vision and mission in the United States military is second to none. The lack of that alignment in other institutions causes a lot of disruption and a lot of noise.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Gaal most recently served as the president of sales for the ed tech company Beable, before resigning to devote himself full-time to winning a job leading a school district. He’s recently been a top contender in other superintendent searches in Lee County, Florida and Decatur, Illinois.

Gaal leaned on his past experience as a school administrator in Detroit and Oakland. He told the board he would devote himself to meeting face to face with teachers, staff and administrators, touring facilities and riding along on bus routes. Gaal said he’s already visited 80 BCPS schools, the first being Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in order to understand “what safety means in Broward County.”

Asked about school safety by Board Member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed in the massacre, Gaal addressed her directly.

“I know that you carry this with you every day,” Gaal told Alhadeff. “It was preventable. It doesn't mean we can prevent all of this in the future. I can't guarantee that. But I can guarantee that we would align our resources all the way down.”

Gaal emphasized not only physical safety but emotional safety, saying all students should be “loved, challenged and prepared” and that their overall well-being is vital to promoting learning and closing achievement gaps. Keeping students in class in-person is a key part of addressing learning loss and disparate outcomes, Gaal said, even during the pandemic.

“You cannot close the gap by not having kids in classrooms. I know again, we can't change COVID. Kids have to be in classrooms. We need to extend not the learning day, we need to extend the learning experience,” Gaal said. “Let's get back to normal. Let’s have people be comfortable in buildings again. Let's ask people how they're feeling. You can't get kids to learn if they don't feel safe.”

Board members will interview the finalists again next week

Next week, the finalists will return for a community event at Plantation High School on Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. in order to meet with members of the public. They’ll have a second public interviewwith the school board on Feb. 9, after which the board will make its final decision.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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