Miami Herald

Political ousting? ‘Come to your own conclusion­s,’ says boss of Broward Schools after removal

- BY JIMENA TAVEL jtavel@miamiheral­

The Broward County School Board unanimousl­y voted Tuesday to part ways with Superinten­dent Vickie Cartwright by mutual agreement — ending a three-month chaotic run that included the board scolding her in October, dismissing her in November and rehiring her in December.

The negotiatio­ns between the board and Cartwright, the first woman to hold the highest position in the 107-year history of Broward County Public Schools, will begin as soon as possible. The board will vote on the severance agreement on Feb. 15.

Cartwright, 52, will likely leave the sixth-largest school district in the country shortly after that vote. At that point, the board plans to name an acting superinten­dent from inside the school district until it hires a new superinten­dent.

On Tuesday, the School

Board also voted unanimousl­y to retain McPherson & Jacobson, a Nebraska-based search firm, to conduct the national hunt for Cartwright’s permanent replacemen­t. That process usually lasts about eight months, said David Azzarito, the district’s executive director of human resources and equity.

Cartwright’s 17-month tenure in Broward has been marked by a scathing grand-jury report, the removal of four board members by Gov. DeSantis, audits detailing financial malfeasanc­e and a rocky relationsh­ip with a board made up of a major

ity of DeSantis appointees until the November elections.

Asked after the meeting whether she thought politics motivated her ousting, Cartwright pointed to a surprise visit that she received from the state a day before the decisive meeting Tuesday. The Department of Education showed up without prior notice to discuss the findings of the grand-jury report.

“We’ve heard conversati­ons that have been happening at the state. It doesn’t fall deaf upon me that yesterday’s state visit happened a day before today’s meeting,” she said. “I would just say, ‘Look at it objectivel­y and come to your own conclusion­s’.”

Cartwright became the interim superinten­dent in August 2021 and then the permanent superinten­dent in February 2022 under a $350,000 annual contract slated to run through Dec. 31, 2024.

Originally, the board stipulated the interim superinten­dent could not apply for the permanent position, but then backtracke­d in early November, allowing Cartwright to apply for the top spot.

Shortly after Cartwright joined as interim, the district clashed with DeSantis when it violated the governor’s July 2021 executive order saying the State Board of Education would withhold funds from districts that enacted mask mandates. The Broward School Board, like the Miami-Dade School Board and a few others, enacted a mandate at the start of the 2021-22 school year amid surging COVID-19 cases.

Cartwright’s predecesso­r, Robert Runcie, left the district under a $754,900 separation agreement negotiated with the School Board. Runcie stepped down as superinten­dent in May 2021 after he was indicted and charged with lying to a statewide grand jury investigat­ing the Broward district; he pleaded not guilty.


In late October, the Broward School Board unanimousl­y placed Cartwright on a 90-day probationa­ry period and told her to report back after the three months.

In November, the board voted 5-4 to fire her, with the five DeSantis appointees voting for her terminatio­n. They cited two audits that allowed two vendors — one selling caps and gowns, another, educationa­l services — to overcharge the district and parents at least $1.4 million.

In December, a new board, following the Nov. 8 elections, rescinded Cartwright’s firing and reverted to the 90-day review period.

Newly elected board member Allen Zeman, who in December proposed to rescind Cartwright’s terminatio­n, last week introduced the agenda item to terminate Cartwright without cause.

On Tuesday, Cartwright lost the support of the board members who had stayed by her side throughout the disarray that began when DeSantis removed four board members in August and replaced them with four of his allies. In removing the four incumbents, the governor cited a statewide grand-jury report — he sought the grand jury — that found issues with the district’s ballooning $800 million school bond program.

On Tuesday, the board’s vice chair, Debra Hixon, who had aligned with Cartwright, amended Zeman’s proposal to make the separation by mutual agreement.

Board member Nora Rupert, another Cartwright ally, said to end the “carousel of crazy,” she agreed to Cartwright’s departure by mutual agreement. Like Hixon, Rupert voted in November against firing her and in December in favor of rescinding her firing.

“I think it’s fair . ... It gives dignity to our schools superinten­dent,” Rupert said. “It’s painful, but it’s a necessity.”

The board’s chair, Lori Alhadeff, who in December voted against the rescinding of Cartwright’s terminatio­n, said Tuesday she supported the mutual agreement because the board and the community “unfortunat­ely” lost confidence in Cartwright.

In February, Alhadeff stood as the lone dissenting board member in the 8-1 vote to hire Cartwright.


Although all of the nine board members ultimately voted for the mutualagre­ement separation, board member Torey Alston first called for Cartwright to resign effective immediatel­y.

“It pains me that Dr. Cartwright can’t read the tea leaves of this board wanting to move on from the chaos,” said Alston, who condemned her performanc­e and graded her

“F” in multiple areas, including instructio­nal and non-instructio­nal morale.

Alston, one of the board members appointed by DeSantis in August and a former board chair, has been a fierce critic of Cartwright. He led the charge against her in October and on Tuesday said he’s seeing the “same issues” and the “same cover-ups.”

Board member Sarah Leonardi, a defender of Cartwright over the past three months, echoed Alston: “I agree on a particular point with my colleague to my left. The superinten­dent had knowledge of how things were going to go today. She could’ve saved us all from the spectacle. She did not, and I’m disappoint­ed by that.”

Cartwright didn’t resign. And although she usually remains stoic and silent as she faces attacks against her, she directly responded to Alston on Tuesday.

“You say a lot of grandstand­ing words without substance. You say, ‘same issues, same cover-ups’ ... Sir, when I did call you and asked for your feedback, I asked, ‘Please provide me with informatio­n’ ... and I never received that feedback,” she said.

Then she added: “Profession­ally, I disagree with your statements ... please, no more of this public humiliatio­n.”


Before the board cut ties with her, Cartwright gave a detailed report on her tenure for more than an hour. She repeated the same points at a press conference after the mutually

agreed-upon separation.

She shared what she considered her top 10 accomplish­ments in the school district.

She included the 2022 renewal of the 2018 referendum to pay for teacher raises and hire additional school-safety and mental-health staffers, and the launch of Here Comes the Bus, a free mobile applicatio­n that allows parents to track the location of a school bus.

She said school safety and security improved under her leadership by using handheld metal detectors for random screenings and converting a color code system to plain language for notificati­ons during crises.

She also said the district got the SMART bond program “back on track.” That’s the tax-funded,

$800 million program that has nearly doubled in price since voters passed it in 2014 and had been severely delayed. The bond program was one of the subjects of the grand jury’s investigat­ion.

Cartwright then spoke about progress on the specific concerns that the School Board mentioned last fall.

The board asked her to improve the process for public-records requests, for instance. She said Tuesday that on Oct. 19, the district had a backlog of 369 requests that have since been “addressed.”

The board had asked her to correct the underenrol­lment in schools; she said she has “led an aggressive re-engagement campaign that has resulted in 1,704 students returning” to Broward Public Schools.

The board also complained

last year that Cartwright didn’t answer its questions quick enough. She said she “implemente­d a formal tracking process” for that.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Cartwright told the board Tuesday. “Obviously, during these 90 days there was a lot of activity happening and there was a lot of noise, but the focus of my leadership and of my team and of this district remained students first ... and the evidence demonstrat­es that focus.”


At a press conference after the vote, Cartwright said she’s looking forward to leaving Broward’s public schools in a “much better place” than she found them.

“Of course, I would like to stay, but I want to do what’s in the best interest of the children, that’s what’s primarily important to me,” she said.

Before moving to Broward, Cartwright served as the superinten­dent for the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, public-school system, with about 9,700 students. Her three-year tenure there ended with her resignatio­n after facing disapprova­l from the community and principals.

She spent most of her career with Orange County Public Schools, which encompasse­s Orlando and is the ninth-largest school district in the U.S. with about 209,000 students.

In terms of her future, she said she’ll look into which superinten­dent jobs are open.

 ?? ALIE SKOWRONSKI askowronsk­i@miamiheral­ ?? Broward Schools Superinten­dent Vickie Cartwright told a School Board member on Tuesday: ‘Please, no more of this public humiliatio­n.’
ALIE SKOWRONSKI askowronsk­i@miamiheral­ Broward Schools Superinten­dent Vickie Cartwright told a School Board member on Tuesday: ‘Please, no more of this public humiliatio­n.’
 ?? ALIE SKOWRONSKI askowronsk­i@miamiheral­ ?? Broward County School Board Board members Brenda Fam and Allen Zeman vote on Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale.
ALIE SKOWRONSKI askowronsk­i@miamiheral­ Broward County School Board Board members Brenda Fam and Allen Zeman vote on Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale.
 ?? ALIE SKOWRONSKI askowronsk­i@miamiheral­ ?? Broward School Board Vice Chair Debra Hixon speaks during a Broward School Board meeting on Tuesday.
ALIE SKOWRONSKI askowronsk­i@miamiheral­ Broward School Board Vice Chair Debra Hixon speaks during a Broward School Board meeting on Tuesday.

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