As Broward superintendent’s job is in jeopardy, top lawyer’s fate is also uncertain

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | October 24, 2022

As Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright faes a possible vote to fire her Tuesday, the future of the school district’s top lawyer also remains in limbo.

Interim General Counsel Marylin Batista has been negotiating with School Board Chairman Torey Alston to keep the job permanently. But the two are at an impasse over pay, and if the matter isn’t resolved, Batista could lose her seat on the dais as the School Board’s legal adviser. She would be allowed to return to her old job as deputy general counsel with a $60,000 pay cut, according to her contract.

Batista, who has been a district lawyer since 1996, is now paid $230,000 as interim general counsel. Alston offered to keep her at the same salary with the possibility of earning up to $15,000 more in 90 days pending a good evaluation. Batista wants at least $245,000 to start.

“What would be in the best interest of the taxpayers? To have someone that perhaps cannot lead you through these trouble shark-infested waters we’ve been dealing with in Broward County for the last couple of years?” Batista’s lawyer, Frank Areces, told Alston during negotiations Thursday. “Or someone that can keep you out of litigation, can keep you out of having to pay more to represent board members.”

While the dispute is over a relatively small amount of money, the bigger issue may be whether a School Board now controlled by Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees actually wants to keep its top administrators in their jobs.

The school district has faced a period of shakeups and uncertainties since Aug. 26, when DeSantis suspended and replaced four School Board members due to a scathing grand jury report that identified mismanagement and possible corruption.

The same grand jury in April 2021 indicted former Superintendent Robert Runcie and former General Counsel Barbara Myrick on felony charges.

The four newest board members, along with previous DeSantis appointee Daniel Foganholi, refer to themselves as the “reform board” and have promised bold actions during their brief tenure, which ends for all but Alston shortly after new board members are elected Nov. 8.

A pivotal meeting is set for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, where Alston has scheduled an “open discussion and action” regarding all three employees who directly report to the board: Cartwright, Batista and Chief Auditor Joris Jabouin.

Cartwright, who wasn’t with the district during the period reviewed by the grand jury, appears to be the most at risk of losing her job.

She has received harsh criticism in recent weeks by Alston and Foganholi, both DeSantis appointees. An agenda item prepared by Alston lists 15 criticisms related to her leadership.

If Alston asks the board Tuesday to fire her, Foganholi told the South Florida Sun Sentinel he would support that.

It’s unclear if Jabouin’s job is in jeopardy. The School Board has yet to publicly discuss his performance.

“I do believe that that is something that has to be discussed,” Foganholi said. “We are responsible for three people, and we have the authority to look over how they’re doing.”

Cartwright, Batista and Jabouin could not be reached Monday.

Batista was named interim general counsel in May 2021 to replace Myrick. As a condition of her taking on that role, the School Board did not allow Batista to apply for the permanent job. Her salary increased from $170,00 as a deputy general counsel to $230,000 as interim general counsel.

A search for general counsel resulted in two finalists, but neither accepted the job. So the School Board directed then-Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson to negotiate a contract with Batista to stay on permanently. But Levinson was suspended before that happened.

On Oct. 4, Foganholi voiced outrage when Cartwright and Batista approved separation packages worth $237,000 for three district administrators without notifying the School Board.

He asked the board at the meeting to consider rescinding the offer to Batista, but most other board members, including three DeSantis appointees, disagreed with him and directed Alston to negotiate with Batista.

But her lawyer Areces accused Alston of engaging in “bad faith” negotiations with a starting offer of $200,000.

“She’s not happy with the way that Chairman Alston is proceeding with the negotiations,” Areces told the Sun Sentinel. “He started at $30,000 below what she’s making now, which is insulting.”

Alston noted that Batista’s salary was $10,000 more than Myrick made when she left the general counsel job. Myrick had fewer years of experience as a lawyer.

“There’s no way I can present anything more to this board, knowing the statements they’ve all publicly made, the budget conversations we’ve had and all the challenges that we’re facing,” Alston said during negotiations Thursday.

So it will be up to the School Board to decide whether to instruct Alston to keep negotiating. Board members Nora Rupert and Sarah Leonardi said they would like to work out a deal with Batista.

“She’s respected throughout the state. The district has been under enormous pressure, and I feel she has given it the best she can, and I don’t see any reason to discontinue,” Rupert said. “She’s always willing to learn and make policies and processes better.”

Ryan Reiter, one of the Desantis appointees, said Batista “has been with the district a very long time, and I do believe her to be an asset. As far as a leadership role and advising the board, I’d have to take a look at the documentation as far as why she might not be suited for general counsel.”

Foganholi said the separation-agreement controversy “didn’t sit well with me. I’d be excited to have the conversation to look to see if there’s new talent we can bring in.”

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