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The Florida Board of Education chairman seeks to suspend Broward's superintendent

In this Sept. 2, 2021 photo, Broward County Schools interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright visits the New River Middle School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
Lynne Sladky
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AP
In this Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, Broward County Schools (then interim) superintendent Vickie Cartwright visits the New River Middle School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Broward was among the school districts that defied the state's ban on mask mandates at the start of the last school year.

The chair of the Florida Board of Education is putting Vickie Cartwright on notice; at a state board meeting Thursday, it was Chair Tom Grady who suggested the Broward Superintendent should be suspended from her position.

BCPS has been under intense scrutiny since the release of a statewide grand jury investigation that found evidence of fraud and mismanagement related to the district’s SMART Bond, an $800 million project on school renovations and safety upgrades.

The grand jury report has already led to the ouster of four Broward school board members and three district administrators. Cartwright joined the district months after the grand jury completed its work in April 2021.

During Thursday’s meeting, Grady — referencing Cartwright — asked whether the state board can remove superintendents.

“I'm wondering if this board has the authority to suspend a superintendent in a school district,” Grady said, “or to suggest to a district that such an action be taken.”

As Florida Department of Education Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva pointed out, the state board does not have that power. Under Florida law, governors can remove local elected officials for a number of reasons, including for malfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty.

"I'm wondering if this board has the authority to suspend a superintendent in a school district or to suggest to a district that such an action be taken.” - Florida Board of Education Chair Tom Grady

But in Broward, superintendents are appointed by the local school board, not elected by the voters.

“In Broward County, they are employed by the school board at the local level,” Oliva said. “So all of the hiring and I guess firing or any personnel-related actions would be done locally by the elected officials in the school district.”

“Well hopefully that process will play itself out,” Grady replied.

In his questioning, Grady referenced that the state board has questioned Cartwright in the past, after the Broward school board voted to mandate masks at the beginning of the 2021 school year.

“I wish that there was something that this board could do,” Grady said. “Perhaps we can in the future.”

In a written statement to WLRN, district spokesperson John Sullivan said Cartwright remains committed to school safety and said she was simply doing her job in implementing the school board’s mask policy.

“Superintendent Cartwright has and will continue cooperating with FLDOE [the Florida Department of Education] to ensure the safety of our schools,” the statement reads in part.

“Since arriving at the District in August 2021, almost five months after the Grand Jury concluded, Superintendent Cartwright’s priority has been focused on providing safe learning environments for our students and staff," the statement said. "With that objective in mind, she has made significant improvements in the organizational structure of the District, safety and security, and the management of the SMART Bond program over the past year and continues to implement additional improvements.”

In Broward, school board has authority to hire, fire superintendents

Cartwright is still relatively new on the job — she was appointed the district’s permanent superintendent in February, after serving on an interim basis since August of 2021.

The school board hired her to take over after former Superintendent Robert Runcie stepped down, days after he was arrested on a perjury count related to the grand jury investigation, which was launched in the wake of the 2018 Parkland shooting.

The chair of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, has said praised Cartwight, saying that under her leadership, the district could be a model for school safety.

Cartwright drew national media attention for carrying out the Broward school board’s decision to implement a mask mandate in August of 2021, in defiance of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"We’ve been through a very tumultuous time as a school district in the last two years and I think what we really need right now is stability. And she has not given us a reason to question her leadership in a way that would cause me to believe that we need to fire her just yet." -Broward School Board Member Sarah Leonardi

Under Cartwright’s employment agreement, the school board “may remove the Superintendent from office at any time [...] with or without cause upon an affirmative vote of a majority of [the school board’s] membership”.

After DeSantis removed four Broward school board members from office, a majority of the board is now made up of his appointees — at least until November, when four of the members will term out.

The appointees have already demonstrated their power as a voting bloc — in electing Torey Alston to be the new chair. Alston resigned his seat on the Broward County Commission to take DeSantis’ appointment to the school board.

Alston did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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.
Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel
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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.

Board Member Sarah Leonardi said she ‘obviously disagrees’ with the suggestion that Cartwright should be suspended.

“I think that would be very expensive for the school district, one. And two, I think it would take our district in the wrong direction,” Leonardi said.

“We’ve been through a very tumultuous time as a school district in the last two years and I think what we really need right now is stability,” she added. “And she has not given us a reason to question her leadership in a way that would cause me to believe that we need to fire her just yet.”

State officials scrutinize school districts named in grand jury report

FDOE staff have been putting pressure on Cartwright and the superintendents of Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach Counties, which were also named in the grand jury report for underreporting crimes and other school safety-related issues.

In a letter dated Sept. 7, Tim Hay, the director of the state’s Office of Safe Schools, directed Cartwright to cut ties with district staffers who were named in the investigation.

“As you are aware, on August 26, 2022, Governor DeSantis took swift and immediate action to remove the four sitting board members identified in the Grand Jury report. Moreover, our Department has and will continue to move urgently on those issues that were identified by the Grand Jury and merit further investigation,” Hay’s letter reads in part.

“It is now incumbent upon you as the Broward County Superintendent to take real and decisive action that represents Broward’s commitment to safer schools for its students and staff.”

"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 [...] I am just committed today as I was on day one of my superintendency to moving this district forward." -Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright

On Sept. 13, the Broward school board accepted the resignations and retirements of three administrators: Jeffrey Moquin, Chief of Staff; Ronald Morgan, Assistant Chief Building Official-Inspections; and David Watkins, Director of Diversity and School Climate.

During the same board meeting, Cartwright gave a presentation detailing her efforts to respond to concerns outlined in the investigation, saying she has taken “swift action” since the report was published on Aug. 19.

“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,” Cartwright said. “I am just committed today as I was on day one of my superintendency to moving this district forward.”

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As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.