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Broward schools superintendent will keep her job, after emotional meeting

Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright, right, updates reporters on the statewide grand jury report at the school board administration building in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. To her left, Board Chair Torey Alston listens.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright has survived the most serious challenge to her leadership so far.

It came after hours of emotionally charged debate about the future of the district and the compounding crises that continue to define it: the Parkland shooting, the pandemic and mismanagement.

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Heading into Tuesday’s meeting, it wasn’t clear that Cartwright still had the support of most board members, the majority of whom were appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

As Cartwright’s job hung on the line, dozens of parents, educators and community activists spoke out in support and against the superintendent during the tense, 12 hour-long meeting.

Chair Torey Alston, who has referred to himself and the other appointees as ‘reformers’, said the reckoning was needed.

“The reform board, we do want change. The reform board, we do want swift action,” Alston said. “This reform board, we want a culture of yes, not a culture of no.”

Board Member Daniel Foganholi, who was appointed, has also been outspoken in his criticisms of Cartwright.

“Firing someone is not easy… but like the chair said, if we want easy, we can put our head in the sand and do nothing,” Foganholi said. “I’m not leaving here today without a vote.”

But after hours of impassioned public comment and debate, the board did not call a vote on whether to fire Cartwright. Instead, they voted unanimously to reprimand her and set a 90-day timeline for her to address board members’ concerns on district culture, community engagement and accountability.

“I am very humbled,” Cartwright said. “The board tonight has demonstrated that they have continued faith and confidence in my leadership and I am very grateful to the board for that.”

Cartwright defends her leadership

Cartwright’s future has increasingly been in question since DeSantis appointed four new members in August, after removing four sitting members at the recommendation of a statewide grand jury that found incompetence and neglect in their duty related to a school renovation effort.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Chair Torey Alston, who was appointed by DeSantis, outlined a 15-point document detailing his concerns that Cartwright hasn’t done enough to respond to the grand jury report, to improve outcomes for underserved students or to strengthen public trust.

Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun Sentinel
Broward County's newest school board members were sworn in on Aug. 30, 2022. They are, from left, Kevin Tynan, Ryan Reiter, Torey Alston and Manuel “Nandy” A. Serrano.

Alston also alleged she’s just trying to run down the clock on the five appointees. All but Alston will term out in November.

“I believe there was a well-coordinated strategy – very well coordinated — to placate five of us up here,” Alston said. “This ‘getting to November’ culture, seeking to do the bare minimum, pushing off our decisions.”

Cartwright acknowledged she could’ve done more to calm the fears of district staff.

“There has been such instability in the past five years in this school district. I wasn't clear enough to keep rumors calm. And I accept responsibility for that,” Cartwright said.

But she’s defended her track record in the district, highlighting her efforts to fill critical vacancies, to restructure administrative staffing in a way she says better serves students and to bolster school safety.

She joined the district as interim superintendent in August of 2021 and accepted the job of permanent superintendent in February.

“I've listened and ensured that I continue to work with urgency on behalf of our students and staff. And I remain committed to being the superintendent for all in Broward County Public Schools,” Cartwright said.

A divided board and a divided public

During Tuesday’s meeting, a number of public speakers and board members praised Cartwright’s leadership, her tenure as a classroom teacher, band director and administrator, and her dedication to students.

Her supporters said that many of Broward’s long-standing issues — aging facilities, miscommunications, achievement gaps, a history of corruption — predate Cartwright’s tenure and take time to correct.

Still, Cartwright’s critics argued she hasn’t done enough for students of color and claimed Black administrators have been treated unfairly, an accusation Cartwright has disputed.

“The majority of those impacted by her failed leadership are Black,” said Bobby Henry, publisher of the Westside Gazette, the county’s largest Black-owned newspaper. “This situation has been inflamed and incensed by racial and political lines.”

In a passionate speech that brought tears to the eyes of at least one of her colleagues, board member Debbi Hixon pleaded for healing in a community that has been devastated by the 2018 Parkland shooting, during which Hixon’s husband Chris was murdered.

“This is not in the best interest of our district,” she said of firing Cartwright. “It's just not. It may be in the best interest of some community members or some board members that feel that they've been disrespected. But it is not in the best interest of our students.”

“This division started because of the tragedy,” Hixon said. “Please let's come together as a community and heal together. We need each other.”

Kate Payne / WLRN
As of August, a majority of the Broward County School Board is made up of members appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis -- an unprecedented dynamic in one of the state's most Democratic-leaning counties. Four of the appointees will term out in November.

The board’s student advisor, Jorge Altuna, told the board that what Broward students need is consistent leadership.

“For the sake of stability, and especially during a school year, I hope to look forward to continual improvement under Dr. Cartwright’s leadership as superintendent of Broward County Public Schools,” Altuna said.

“And I hope your actions today are led by guiding principles of reaffirming the importance of student achievement through factors that our school district has lacked: stability, consistency and reliability.”

Board members seemed to take Altuna’s comments to heart. He was the last to speak before Alston and Cartwright went into a backroom to negotiate. When they returned, there was no motion to fire her — instead Alston called for a reprimand.

Two weeks from Election Day, appointed members’ time in office runs short

The board’s decision to spare Cartwright buys her more time to prove herself to a board that’s elected by the voters, rather than appointed by the governor.

The board will look significantly different in a matter of weeks. Early voting is already underway and Broward residents will have four new elected school board members come November.

On Tuesday, multiple speakers urged the board not to fire Cartwright, saying for a majority-appointed board to make such a significant decision is antidemocratic.

Some accused the appointed members of being ‘puppets’ of DeSantis. Michael Dorfman said he’s been a music educator in the district for almost two decades.

“DeSantis doesn’t want someone to hold a position? They’re gone. It’s that simple,” Dorfman said Tuesday morning. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves on that board. This is no longer a democracy. This is a dictatorship.”

There has been pressure from the state to oust Cartwright. In September, the chair of the State Board of Education suggested he and his colleagues should remove her from office. Legally, they cannot do this.

Among other issues, Chair Tom Grady pointed to the Broward school board’s decision to mandate masks in August of 2021, in defiance of an executive order by DeSantis. Cartwright drew national attention for implementing the board’s policy, including from President Joe Biden, who called her personally to praise her leadership.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter.