Broward School Board members appointed by DeSantis fire superintendent a week before they leave
In a shocking move, the Broward School Board voted 5-4 to fire Superintendent Vickie Cartwright at 10 p.m. Monday, with the five members appointed to the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis ousting her — four of whom will leave their posts in a week.
Board member Daniel Foganholi, appointed by DeSantis in April, proposed the motion to terminate Cartwright after the board heard audit reports critical of the school district. Chair Torey Alston, selected by DeSantis in August, seconded the motion.
The audits involved two district contracts with two longtime vendors. The school district allowed the companies — one of which distributed caps and gowns, the other offering education management and training services — to overcharge the district and parents at least $1.4 million, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported earlier this month.
The three other board members tapped by DeSantis in August voted with Alston and Foganholi to dismiss Cartwright — Ryan Reiter, Kevin Tynan and Manuel “Nandy” Serrano. Tynan delivered the tie-breaking vote after a long, dramatic pause in which he confessed he didn’t expect to be in that position.
READ MORE: DeSantis-ousted Broward School Board member loses; four new faces join board
Cartwright, 52, first rose to the role as interim in July 2021. When she became the official superintendent in February on an 8-1 vote, she also became the first female superintendent in the district’s 107-year history. At the time, the board approved a contract for her with an annual salary of $350,000 set to run until Dec. 31, 2024.
But since the four DeSantis appointees entered the scene in August, she started fielding criticism. On Oct. 26, in another meeting that stretched deep into the evening, the board discussed firing Cartwright. That day, however, the members ended up voting unanimously to reprimand her on a long list of issues and ordered her to provide a progress report in 90 days.
READ MORE: Broward School Board abstains from firing superintendent, gives her 90 days to improve
Women oppose Cartwright’s termination
On Monday, the four women elected to the board opposed the motion to fire her — warning of the negative consequences and questioning the motives of the five appointed men. School board members generally are elected, not appointed, as school districts are funded by local property taxes. The four who voted to retain Cartwright were Vice Chair Lori Alhadeff, Debra Hixon, Sarah Leonardi and Nora Rupert.
Leonardi condemned the vote as “unfair” to the new incoming board members who will be sworn in Nov. 22, Allen Zeman, Rodney “Rod” Velez, Jeff Holness and Brenda Fam.
READ MORE: DeSantis-ousted Broward School Board member loses; four new faces join board
Leonardi criticized the abruptness of the late-night motion, and said the board’s student adviser and community members reached out to her during the meeting wondering, “What’s going on?”
“What message does that send? That one day we make a 90-day agreement, and then two weeks later we go back on that,” she said. “And so while I have serious concerns about the issues raised in this audit and the legitimacy of the audit, this action is impulsive and inappropriate for this moment, and I cannot support that.”
Alhadeff asked the board’s lawyer whether the board was violating state Sunshine laws by voting on an action that wasn’t explicitly shared with the public beforehand. Batista said it wasn’t a violation because the item on the agenda about the audit reports had been advertised.
“Well I don’t think that’s the intent of the law,” Alhadeff said. “I can’t support this action at this time. This, I don’t feel is following the Sunshine. It’s not the intended action; it’s not giving the community enough notice to come and speak to it.”
Hixon said the termination would cause a mess and said it doesn’t make sense financially because the district would have to pay out her $350,000 contract.
“With all due respect to the appointed members that are here, you’re not going to have to deal with the chaos that we’re going to have from removing the superintendent. The process of finding a new superintendent as well as probably many of the top positions that will likely be vacant when she leaves will fall on our shoulders and that of the new board that comes in next week. That many changes at once will cripple our district and negatively affect our students and staff,” Hixon said.
“It does feel like there’s an underlying goal to dismantle our public education system in Broward County, so for that reason I would not support trying to terminate the superintendent,” she added.
After the Monday meeting, Alston said in an emailed statement to the press sent at nearly midnight that he would “negotiate a smooth separation and transition” with the help of the board’s interim general counsel, Marilyn Batista. He also thanked Cartwright for her service.
“Dr. Vickie Cartwright is a wonderful individual, but leading the nation’s sixth-largest school district requires a hands-on leader and someone that will make real change,” he wrote. “Based on recent systemic issues, the Board decided to go in a different direction.”
Four ‘yes’ votes to leave the dais in a few days
Foganholi, Reiter, Tynan and Serrano will leave the board on Tuesday, Nov. 22, as they were not on the Nov. 8 ballot. They will be replaced by the four new board members — Zeman, Velez, Holness and Fam — who will be sworn into office Nov. 22.
Alston will remain on the board for two more years, as he replaced a member whose term ends in 2024.
DeSantis appointed Foganholi in April to replace board member Rosalind Osgood, who stepped down to successfully run for the Florida Senate.
The governor appointed the other four members following the release of a report from a statewide grand jury, which he requested the Florida Supreme Court to impanel after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shootings in 2018, which led to the deaths of 17 students and faculty members.
The report recommended the suspensions of Board Chair Laurie Rich Levinson, Board Vice Chair Patricia Good and longtime board members Donna Korn and Ann Murray, citing mismanagement of the district’s $800 million school construction bond program.
DeSantis suspended them and replaced them with Alston, Reiter, Serrano and Tynan.
READ MORE: DeSantis suspends four Broward County School Board members, appoints replacements
DeSantis, Broward school district battles
DeSantis has been critical of the Broward school district and its leadership since the Parkland shootings, which led to the statewide grand jury that he had requested.
The former Broward superintendent, Robert Runcie, was arrested in April 2021 and charged with perjury related to his grand jury testimony. Runcie pleaded not guilty. The district’s general counsel at the time, Barbara Myrick, was also arrested and charged with unlawful disclosure of statewide grand jury proceedings. She chose not to enter a plea. Their cases are pending.
Cartwright replaced Runcie. Cartwright and the board defied DeSantis when they enacted a mask mandate before the start of school in August 2021, at a time when new COVID-19 cases in the state were topping more than 20,000 a day, among the nation’s highest tallies.
The month before, In July 2021, DeSantis issued an executive order prohibiting school districts in Florida from making masks mandatory. Broward and Miami-Dade Public Schools, along with a handful of other districts, defied the governor and were fined by the state.
Read More: Broward School Board accuses state of overreaching, says its mask mandate follows law
Flipping of Cartwright support
On Monday, Reiter said Cartwright hadn’t effected change in the district quick enough.
“This district needs a change leader, not a chaos manager,” he said.
Both Tynan and Serrano had first indicated they would vote “no” but then flipped.
Tynan said he felt “deeply disturbed” by the audits but thought the board had “put [the topic] to rest” when they issued the 90-day probationary period. He also worried the school district would lack a superintendent for four to six months.
“I don’t know to what extent you put all of this on the superintendent’s lap,” he said regarding the audits.
“I guess I go back to the statement I made the first time this came up: I’m conflicted,” Tynan added. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but sometimes it’s better to deal with the devil that know than the devil that you don’t.”
READ MORE: Broward names its interim as schools superintendent, first woman to hold the top job
Serrano initially said he wasn’t in a position to fire Cartwright.
“I don’t think it’s right to vote on that motion and terminate her because of the [90-day] agreement. I believe in honoring that,” he said.
He advised Cartwright to “reset” the district instead, by firing needed staffers. But then he voted to fire her.
‘Carousel of crazy’
Rupert suggested the board enforce monthly deadlines on the 90-day plan for Cartwright rather than terminating her. She also warned of the consequences of the board’s action.
“I can’t think of the absolute horrendous situation of our staff and our community sitting out there. I’m sure people in the building and everybody at home is watching and they’re terrified,’’ she said. Here we go again, we’re going to be bringing more people in. Sorry, we’re going to do the carousel of crazy. That’s what I call it, ‘the carousel of crazy,’” she added.
“What? How? How is that putting children first?” she added. “It is not.”