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Broward superintendent responds to grand jury report

Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright says she's taken "swift action" to respond to a statewide grand jury investigation into the district, including by pushing three administrators to resign or retire.
Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright says she's taken "swift action" to respond to a statewide grand jury investigation into the district, including by pushing three administrators to resign or retire.

The superintendent of Broward County Public Schools says she’s making strides in addressing the issues outlined in a statewide grand jury investigation into the district, which led to the ouster of four school board members.

The grand jury’s final report released on Aug. 19 found evidence of fraud and mismanagement and prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove four school board members from office.

The report found school board members failed to hold district officials accountable for the mismanagement of the $800 million SMART Bond program, which was meant to fund school renovations and safety upgrades.

Construction delays, supply chain issues and cost increases mean the overall project has ballooned to $1.4 billion, nearly double the original estimate. The grand jury wrote that mismanagement is “costing the taxpayers of Broward County millions of extra dollars as projects fall literal years behind schedule and students continue to be educated in decrepit, moldy, unsafe buildings.”

In a presentation to the board on Tuesday, Superintendent Vickie Cartwright highlighted changes she’s made in advance of and in response to the report, including district staffing, oversight of the SMART bond and school security.

“I took swift and immediate action once [the report] was released,” Cartwright said. “The actions I have taken and continue to take are based on the principle of ensuring we have the safest learning environment for our students and staff.”

Other changes include more coordination with the outside company hired to manage the SMART bond and hiring an independent consultant to review the leadership structure.

Cartwright also pointed to her efforts to address recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission and assured the board that the district is complying with state law on reporting school safety incidents.

The district is also limiting access to a pre-arrest diversion program for students accused of a crime. The PROMISE program, which aims to keep kids out of the criminal justice system by providing academic interventions and counseling, has faced intense scrutiny because the Parkland shooter had been referred to it.

Now, Cartwright says students will only get three chances to participate in the program throughout their entire school career instead of three chances per academic year.

Three BCPS administrators leave their jobs

At Tuesday’s meeting, the school board accepted the resignations and retirements of three Broward County Public Schools administrators after state officials demanded their ouster. In a letter to Cartwright on Sept. 7, the Florida Department of Education directed the district to cut ties with employees named in a statewide grand jury investigation.

The three employees are:

  • Jeffrey Moquin, Chief of Staff, whose resignation is effective Dec. 2, 2022
  • Ronald Morgan, Assistant Chief Building Official-Inspections, whose retirement is effective Sept. 13, 2022
  • David Watkins, Director of Diversity and School Climate, whose resignation is effective Sept. 9, 2022

The three staffers were named directly in the grand jury report for what the investigation found was their mismanagement of the botched roofing reconstruction effort and not sufficiently cooperating with the grand jury’s investigation.
In a letter to Cartwright, Tim Hay, the Executive Director of the DOE Office of Safe Schools, said that accountability should not end with the elected officials.

“If such staff are continuously employed by Broward County Public Schools — individuals who clearly failed the public in substantially documented and repeated ways — such a lack of action by the district could only be perceived as the district’s tacit endorsement of past and future ineptitude,” Hay’s letter reads in part. “As the Superintendent, you must take ownership of the future safety of Broward’s students and staff with firm, immediate action.”

Superintendent Vickie Cartwright told the three employees to resign, or they’d be investigated, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“Again, it was one of those situations where I knew that we needed to take a look closer into…what had occurred. And then we met with the individuals and gave them choices,” Cartwright said.

Chair Torey Alston, a DeSantis appointee, pushed back on the notion that the terminations were the result of undue pressure from state officials.

“Partisanship remains at the door,” Alston said. “Regardless of who the governor is — he or she — clearly, I'm sure if there was a grand jury report, some action would have been taken.”

A fourth administrator who was named in the report but who has not been forced out is Deputy Superintendent of Operations Judith Marte, who previously worked as the district’s Chief Financial Officer.

The grand jury accused Marte of misleading the board in saying that taking out additional financial bonds would not result in an increased tax burden.

In a letter to Hay on Sept. 13, Cartwright said she reviewed the situation and consulted with an outside financial advisor and attorney, who agreed with Marte’s assessment.

Board votes to stop paying legal fees for former board members

In a move that some county residents labeled as retribution, the district will stop paying the attorneys fees of school board members who were removed from office in the wake of the grand jury investigation.

The board voted unanimously on Tuesday not to pay for any legal work after Aug. 26, 2022 — the day when Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended former Chair Laurie Rich Levinson, former Vice Chair Patricia Good, and former Members Donna Korn and Ann Murray.

“We should not be paying any legal fees of prior suspended board members,” said board Chair Torey Alston, who was appointed by DeSantis and who proffered the agenda item.

“It’s wrong,” Alston said. “We should stop it today.”

According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Korn and Murray have racked up more than $120,000 in attorneys fees in their efforts to stop the grand jury report from being publicly released.

Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting, county resident Michael Rajner argued that board members acting in their official capacity deserve due process and the ability to defend themselves.

Rajner said he worries this could set a precedent in the event that the governor suspends other officials in the future.

“Who’s to say that there might not be something where board members sitting in front of me are removed all of a sudden for failure to adhere to the tyrant’s dictates from Tallahassee on masks, on CRT, on LGBT issues,” Rajner said. “This may impact you directly.”

Board approves new budget

The school board also approved this year’s $5.3 billion budget for the 2022-2023 school year. Last year's budget had totaled $4.75 billion, but was amended to $5.48 billion as of May 31, 2022.

Superintendent Cartwright says the budget includes funding to raise employee pay, while also accounting for a continued decline in student enrollment.

“The organization is now structured in a way that best allocates resources and staff,” Cartwright said. “The improved organizational structure has also been rightsized to reflect the district’s declining enrollment, starting first at the district office.”

The budget includes more resources for mental health services, additional money for guidance counselors for elementary schools with more than 700 students, and funds the equivalent of 308 teaching positions to help accelerate student learning – paid for through federal coronavirus aid.

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