Miami schools administrator who helped pick K12 online learning received $9,070 raise

Colleen Wright

As Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers still wait for their $100 gift cards for enduring a seriously flawed online learning platform at the start of school, one of the administrators responsible for the “lion’s share” of selecting the company that created that platform received a $9,070 raise last month.

Lisette Alves, 51, the assistant superintendent over academics, accountability and school improvement in the district’s Office of Academics and Transformation, received the pay bump Sept. 25. Her six-figure salary was boosted to $129,070, a 7.6 percent raise. She has worked in the school district since 1990.

Alves worked with Sylvia Diaz, assistant superintendent of innovation and school choice in the same district office, to select K12 as the district’s virtual learning provider while schools were closed for the pandemic. Both women report to Chief Academic Officer Marie Izquierdo, who reports directly to Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Miami-Dade is the only school district in the state to select K12. Izquierdo has said that the district’s lack of a learning management system narrowed its options. She submitted the district’s reopening plan to the state for approval.

The platform crashed constantly, resulting in thousands of students not learning for the first week and a half of the already surreal 2020-21 school year. After 400 public comments from frustrated teachers and parents played overnight at a marathon School Board meeting in early September, the board voted at 3 a.m. to unanimously sever its ties with K12.

The district secured a $15.3 million no-bid contract with K12 over the summer, without seeking the School Board’s approval, citing board policy that allowed the district to buy curriculum without approval.

Carvalho later revealed that he’d never signed the contract, and the board voted to end that loophole about its lack of involvement.

More than 6,000 students withdrawn from Miami-Dade Schools

Since the start of school, 6,185 students in traditional public schools were withdrawn from Aug. 27 to Sept. 24, the first month of school, which has been a combination of remote classes and in-person classes, according to information obtained by the Miami Herald’s news partner, WLRN. There are 255,000 students in total.

Carvalho told the School Board Sept. 10 that Diaz and Alves were responsible for the “lion’s share” of selecting K12 under the direction of Izquierdo. Carvalho has said that he takes full responsibility. Board members have continued to ask questions about how well K12 was vetted before it was selected.

School district spokeswoman Jackie Calzadilla said Alves’ raise was the result of an equity compensation review conducted by human resources. She said Alves oversees various departments, including Language Arts, STEAM, Math, Science, Career & Technical, Visual & Performing Arts, Advanced Academics & Gifted Programs, Bilingual & World Languages, Social Sciences & Physical Education.

“The salary she was receiving was not commensurate with the complexity of her work or when compared to the compensation of district employees who have a similar title or professionals who have comparable roles,” Calzadilla wrote in an email.

She added that Alves’ salary was under review since earlier this year. “However, it did not go into effect until September after all managerial employee adjustments went into effect.”

All managerial exempt personnel received a 3% raise July 1. According to a 2019-20 employee database, Alves made $116,816 last year. Diaz took home $145,705 last year, and Izquierdo made $176,598.

In similar positions to Alves and Diaz, Magaly Abrahante, assistant superintendent over early childhood, exceptional student education and Title I programs, made $162,475. Before she was promoted to assistant superintendent over school improvement, Try K. Diggs made $145,137.

Calzadilla did not respond to questions asking if anyone else in the Office of Academics and Transformation received an additional raise like Alves, and who called for and approved the raise.

Asked if anyone in MDCPS faced any disciplinary action following the K12 fallout, she wrote: “The K12 matter is currently under review” without elaborating.

Alves did not respond to requests for comment.

Pandemic has led to financial issues for Miami-Dade Schools

The raise comes to light after Carvalho and Chief Financial Officer Ron Steiger have warned of tough financial times ahead brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Right now, the state is funding the district based on last year’s enrollment levels, though it’s not clear how long the state will do that or if it will continue to fund virtual students at the same level as students physically in school.

About 144,000 students returned to in-person classes during the week of Oct. 5, or slightly more than half of the district’s 255,000 students.

The district’s enrollment is 8,000 students fewer than what was originally projected for this school year.

Carvalho raised the issue at Wednesday’s board meeting to explain why the district cannot hire more teachers. Board members floated that idea to alleviate the workload of teachers pressured to teach in-person students and online students at the same time, called dual modality.

At Miami-Dade School Board meeting, parents and educators plead for clarity over COVID rules

“We are creating a bigger hole than the hole we know the entire state is in,” Carvalho said, pointing to how every school district except for one has seen a decrease in enrollment.

Because the K12 training was considered too little, too late for teachers, Carvalho requested a donation from K12 for Miami-Dade teachers. K12 donated $1.57 million to the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, a nonprofit that supports the district, and which Carvalho chairs and started in March 2008.

“It’s the very least” K12 could do, Carvalho told the Herald.

Teachers received an email the Sunday before the first day of school from their principals notifying them of an incentive from K12: Prepare your lessons on the platform by midnight for a $100 incentive.

The Office of the Inspector General for the school district launched a review into the transfer of funds, as Carvalho accepted a donation from a vendor. The contract, according to Carvalho, was never fully executed and K12 was never paid.

The foundation held a board meeting on Tuesday. One of two action items on the agenda included accepting K12’s donation to give teachers $100 gift cards.

But 20 minutes before the 1 p.m. meeting, after a Miami Herald reporter and the Office of the Inspector General were expected to attend, that item was pulled off the agenda.

The foundation’s executive director, Ann de las Pozas, said the item was withdrawn “out of respect for the ongoing review.”

Pozas wrote in an email that the disbursement of the gift cards to teachers is “dependent upon the completion of the OIG review and the subsequent FNEI board meeting to vote to accept the donation and authorize the expense.”

The foundation’s next scheduled meeting is Jan. 19, 2021, though the board could hold an earlier meeting.

It is not clear if only teachers who submitted their lesson plans by the deadline would be eligible for the gift cards, or if all teachers would receive the gift cards. The email that went out to teachers said the former, but Carvalho said the latter.

The donation is not enough to cover all teachers.

Late Wednesday night, the School Board voted 7-2 to create a rule prohibiting district employees from soliciting or accepting a donation on the behalf of an organization supporting the district from a vendor with a pending contract reward. Board members Lubby Navarro and Marta Perez voted against vice chair Steve Gallon’s last-minute proposal, arguing that it was too sudden.

Navarro had a similar proposal, but said she pulled it out of respect for the Inspector General’s review of the K12 donation. She said she would bring her item back “stronger and better.”