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Education

New superintendents of Florida's two largest districts take over as public education becomes increasingly political

Virus Outbreak Florida School Masks
Chris O'Meara/AP
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AP
In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla.

For the first time in years, Florida’s two largest school districts now have new superintendents, after both of their longtime leaders left. Broward and Miami-Dade counties took very different paths for picking their next top bosses, who are taking the helm at a time when public schools are finding themselves at the center of partisan political fights. 

Broward County’s Vickie Cartwright and Miami-Dade County’s Jose Dotres are both career educators. And they both beat out candidates seen as allies to activists pushing the culture wars into the classroom.

But there are very different backstories for why the two districts needed new leaders, and how they picked the people they did.

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Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie led Broward schools for a decade. He agreed to leave and was ultimately terminated without cause after he was charged with felony perjury related to an investigation into the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

During an emotional meeting last April, he spoke directly to school board Member Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was murdered during the massacre.

"If it's going to give you peace, and it's going to give you and those other parents who remain angry — because I don't see how there's anything else I can do — if it's going to give you that, I will step aside so you can have the peace that you are looking for," Runcie said.

He’s pleaded not guilty to the perjury charge.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho basically got promoted. After 14 years on the job, he moved on to lead the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“It is my goal, my decision, that as I open my heart to L.A. never to close my heart to Miami,” Carvalho said. “This has been my home.”

Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Andrea Messina says there is so much uncertainty when longtime leaders leave. That affects how school boards handle these decisions.

“For Miami, it appeared that addressing it quickly and moving on was how they were going to do it,” Messina said.

In Miami-Dade, the school board posted the job for just seven days. They refused calls from community activists to do a national search.

“I think there is a trust issue. Not for the superintendent. But for certain people on the school board who did not listen to their constituency.”
-T. Willard Fair, president & CEO, Urban League of Greater Miami

T. Willard Fair heads the Urban League of Greater Miami and has served as an education advisor to Gov. Ron DeSantis. He called the search process a “miscarriage of justice”.

“I think there is a trust issue,” Fair said. “Not for the superintendent. But for certain people on the school board who did not listen to their constituency.”

Miami-Dade school board members have defended their process. Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon said he was worried that the longer it took, the greater the chance for political interference.

“That factored into my position regarding us doing it as expediently as we could,” Gallon said. "I was never averse to public input. But I think at a certain point, public input would be diminished by politicization of the process.”

It didn’t take long for the ostensibly nonpartisan appointment process to get political. Operatives put out a campaign-style ad for one of the candidates, a top administrator in DeSantis’ Department of Education.

The video that aired on a Spanish television station said Jacob Oliva would push DeSantis’ agenda and oppose critical race theory.

“Only one candidate is on the path to approve and promote the law of Governor Ron DeSantis, which incorporates in the curriculum a class about the dangers of communism and opposes the indoctrination of our kids, like the Marxist government, like Critical Race Theory,” the ad said. “His name is Jacob Oliva.”

Oliva didn't approve the ad. He also didn’t get the job. But the video underscores how political local education has become.

"I was never averse to public input. But I think at a certain point, public input would be diminished by politicization of the process.”
-Steve Gallon, vice chair, Miami-Dade County school board

Meanwhile in Broward County, the school system is still reckoning with the legacy of the Parkland shooting.The trust that many families had in the district was broken again and again leading up to and following the massacre.

School board Chair Laurie Rich Levinson says that hiring an outside firm and devoting months to a national search was about maintaining trust in the process.

“We wanted to make sure that the process was extremely transparent,” Levinson said. “It was very important for us to receive feedback and input from the community.”

The new leaders are taking over at a time when schools are finding themselves in the middle of conservative culture wars. While districts deal with learning loss and staffing shortages, they’re also facing fights over COVID and curriculum.

Messina from the school boards association says there’s a lot on the shoulders of Florida’s new superintendents. Across the state, leaders of large urban districts are leaving.

“They're leaving very strong legacies behind. But Florida's superintendent — senior superintendent wisdom— we're losing,” Messina said. “And that concerns many of us.”

Broward and Miami-Dade are expecting their new superintendents to get caught up quickly. Hundreds of thousands of students are depending on it.