Broward School Board agrees to sever ties with Superintendent Cartwright

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | January 24, 2023

The Broward School Board agreed to sever ties Tuesday with Superintendent Vickie Cartwright, ending a tumultuous 17-month tenure marked by scathing audit and grand jury reports, the governor’s removal of board members and a contentious relationship with many administrators and community members.

Board members and Cartwright agreed to reach a mutual separation, with her last day likely to be sometime within the month after an upcoming negotiation with Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff and an interim replacement is named. The School Board is expected to directly appoint someone from within the district to lead until a permanent replacement is named.

“Of course. I would like to keep the job,” she said at a news conference after the meeting. “But at the same time, this is in the best interest of our students because that’s what it’s about.”

During the meeting, Cartwright only received faint praise from supporters who said she did the best she could leading a district in turmoil. “I don’t think anyone could have tried as hard, who really wanted to be here,” said Nora Rupert, who had fought to give Cartwright the job.

Other board members gave a harsher critique.

“Dr. Cartwright has been a distraction. How many more wake-up calls do we need,” Board member Torey Alston said. “I desire a superintendent that will respect all board members and not pit one of us against another.”

Cartwright fired back at Alston, saying he was “grandstanding without substance.” She asked him to “please stop the public humiliation.”

Board member Sarah Leonardi, who has supported Cartwright in the past, voiced frustration that Cartwright didn’t resign prior to the meeting. Instead, Cartwright gave a one-hour presentation Tuesday morning defending her work.

“The superintendent had knowledge of how things were going to go,” Leonardi said. “She could have saved us from this spectacle. She did not, and I’m disappointed by that.”

After the vote, Cartwright said she didn’t resign before the meeting because she wanted to reach a mutual agreement with the board.

During her presentation, Cartwright said graduation rates are up, particularly among minority students. She said she has taken steps to fix the troubled $800 million bond program, address a backlog in public-records requests and improve communication with board members.

Cartwright said she planned to ask the board to hire an audit firm for $130,000 to review the findings of a statewide grand jury report, released in August, to identify improvements and accountability measures that need to be taken.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and School Board member Sarah Leonardi, left, speak with attendees in the audience during a break in a Broward County School Board meeting held on Tuesday.
Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and School Board member Sarah Leonardi, left, speak with attendees in the audience during a break in a Broward County School Board meeting held on Tuesday. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Cartwright told the board. “Student achievement is improving. Student safety remains at the forefront. On the SMART bond, we’re making forward momentum. The data speaks for itself.”

Cartwright played a video from a summer meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, where Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the group’s chairman, praised her efforts to improve safety in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

During public comments, Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, said Cartwright is not ensuring schools have the safety staff and protocols needed. She asked for the board to fire Cartwright.

“Safety and security continue to be a nightmare. Schools are less safe today than they’ve ever been,” Maxwell said.

Cartwright started as interim superintendent in the district in August 2021 after being forced out earlier in the year from her job as superintendent in Oshkosh, Wis.

When she applied for the job, the agreement was that she wouldn’t apply for the permanent job. But she impressed board members with her ability to address safety issues and defend the district at a State Board of Education meeting where board members threatened to impose financial penalties against the school district for enforcing a mask mandate that defied orders by Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration.

In October 2021, the board agreed to let her apply to become permanent superintendent. She was hired 7-2, in February 2022, with Lori Alhadeff and former board member Ann Murray selecting the other finalist, Michael Gaal.

The first sign of Cartwright’s troubles came in June 2022, when she executed a major administrative shakeup that resulted in several high-level Black administrators getting demoted or sidelined. This led to charges of racism from some in the county’s Black community, including the Westside Gazette newspaper, which has published numerous columns criticizing her leadership.

“I am genuinely hurt. I am not a racist,” Cartwright said at the June 14 meeting. “My entire career has been focused on ensuring equity and diversity.”

Cartwright supporter Rosalind Osgood, who was the only Black member on the board, stepped down in March 2022 to successfully run for state Senate. DeSantis replaced her with Daniel Foganholi, who became one of Cartwright’s harshest critics.

The August 2022 release of a statewide grand jury report put her job in serious jeopardy. At the grand jury’s recommendation, DeSantis removed four Democratic board members, three of whom had voted to hire Cartwright, and replaced them with four Republicans. With Foganholi, that gave DeSantis appointees a majority on the board.

By October, the five DeSantis appointees were discussing weekly whether to fire Cartwright, complaining about large separation packages she approved for fired administrators, a botched search for a facilities chief and poor relationships with district advisory groups and members of the Black community.

On Oct. 25, the board considered firing her, but instead put her on 90-day probation and asked her to address a long list of concerns. Then on Nov. 14, after two audits found lax oversight enabled two vendors to overcharge the district, the five DeSantis appointees voted to fire her.

“There are some great people who work for this organization, but toxic behavior continues to happen,” Foganholi said at the meeting. “This is about accountability.”

The November termination was widely criticized as unfair to Cartwright since the move was not on the agenda, and it came three weeks after the board had voted to put her on a 90-day improvement plan.

After several elected board members joined, the School Board voted Dec. 13 to rescind her firing, but kept her on probation, promising a final decision to be made Tuesday.

Her exit appeared likely last week when Allen Zeman, a key swing vote, submitted a proposal to fire her, suggesting her tenure end June 30. Later in the week, Alhadeff submitted her own proposal, asking that Cartwright only stay for the 60 days required by her contract.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright speaks with School Board member Dr. Allen Zeman during a break in Tuesday's Broward County School Board meeting.
Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright speaks with School Board member Dr. Allen Zeman during a break in Tuesday’s Broward County School Board meeting. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Cartwright said after the meeting she hopes to continue working in education leadership.

“I have the skill set and the mindset, and I have what it takes in order to lead a district going forward,” she said. “I will be looking to see what job openings are available at this point in time.”

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