New Broward schools leader receives $300K salary and a mandate to fix a ‘hot mess’
Miami Herald | By Jimena Tavel | February 16, 2023
The Broward School Board green-lit a $300,000 salary for Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley on Wednesday, challenging her to stabilize and improve the nation’s sixth-largest school district.
Smiley, 71, started her new job immediately after the board’s unanimous vote and will stay on for a year — or until the school district, which one board member referred to as a “crazy carousel of chaos,” hires a permanent superintendent.
“We are so elated to have you here, Dr. Smiley,” said the board’s Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff during a press conference after the board’s decision. “I know you’re going to make a huge impact and difference in our schools, in our academics, getting us to become an A school district and focusing on our strategic plan.”
Smiley will come out of retirement temporarily to replace former Superintendent Vickie Cartwright, who left the Broward school district amid turmoil on Feb. 7 with almost $268,000 in severance. Cartwright, whose predecessor was indicted on charges that he lied to a grand jury, left her post after a rocky tenure that saw the governor suspend and replace a majority of the school board following the release of a scathing report by that same grand jury.
The board selected Smiley the same day that Cartwright stepped down, but appointed Associate Superintendent Valerie Wanza, who has worked in the school district since 1992, as “task assigned” superintendent while the board and Smiley negotiated her contract.
The board also unanimously voted Wednesday to pay Wanza about $3,000 for her week-long service as superintendent and return her to her prior position at the district.
SMILEY TAKES OVER AFTER CARTWRIGHT
Smiley started at the Broward school district in 1974 as a first-year teacher, then rose to principal and eventually to deputy superintendent before she left in 2010. She served as the superintendent of a small school district in South Carolina for three years and has since worked as a consultant.
She took the reins of the Broward school district Wednesday as it recovers from a back-and-forth shift in leadership.
The former superintendent, Cartwright, 52, started as interim in August 2021 and permanent superintendent in February 2022. Her nearly two-year tenure in turmoil after the release of the controversial grand jury report, which blasted the school district for corruption, mismanagement and neglect of a multimillion-dollar bond program funded by taxpayers for school safety initiatives and construction projects. Citing that report last August, Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced four school board members with four of his appointees who vowed change.
Those appointees, along with a fifth previous DeSantis appointee, fired Cartwright in November in a late-night abrupt vote. Cartwright was rehired by the board following the Nov. 8 general elections, which ushered in some new school board members, only to agree in January to part ways.
On Wednesday, Smiley vowed to leave the district in a better state for the next superintendent of Broward schools.
“We should focus first of all on the health of the system. We need to assess, to diagnose what is functional, what is not functioning and to make plans to address those issues,” Smiley said during the press conference.
“At a glance, without having done any assessment, I can tell you what I will zero in on: Safety is paramount,” she said. “I want to make sure that schools are really secure. I want to make sure that teachers have what they need in terms of resources to get their jobs done, and I want to make sure that our students understand that we love them and their voices count.”
WILL SMILEY TRY TO KEEP THE SUPERINTENDENT TITLE?
The school board limited Smiley from applying to keep her job on a permanent basis.
In January, the school board retained McPherson & Jacobson, a Nebraska-based search firm, for $50,000 to conduct the search for a new executive leader. That process could last about eight months, according to David Azzarito, the district’s executive director of human resources and equity.
Asked Wednesday whether she would consider staying on the job in a permanent capacity, Smiley told the media: “That is not an option.”
Reminded that Cartwright also vowed not to seek the permanent superintendent’s role but then did anyway, Smiley said, “The other superintendent was not Earlean Smiley.”
‘NITPICKING’ AND ‘CHERRY-PICKING’ SMILEY’S CONTRACT
The board’s chairwoman, Alhadeff, negotiated the details of the contract on behalf of the nine-member board with Smiley on Monday.
On Wednesday, before voting on it, board members Jeff Holness and Allen Zeman initially raised concerns about some of the contract details. They both voted against naming Smiley as interim superintendent last week.
Holness questioned why Smiley would receive a 7% cash benefit if Cartwright hadn’t gotten one as interim.
Zeman called the contract “an expensive interim solution” and listed other issues with it, including the payment of membership dues for professional organizations and reimbursed travel time.
Board member Torey Alston, one of the two remaining members appointed by DeSantis, defended Smiley and advocated for full benefits. Smiley swore Alston in as a board member back in August.
“She’s a leader, an educator and a reformer,” Alston said of Smiley.
Other board members echoed Alston: Board member Brenda Fam called Zeman’s motion “cherry-picking,” and Alhadeff described it as “nitpicking.”
Board member Nora Rupert praised Smiley’s experience and reminded the board the Broward school district ranked as an A-rated one under her guidance. The district currently holds a B rating and has held it for more than a decade.
“Right now we’re a hot mess and in a crazy carousel of chaos. I want to get off; our employees want to get off and we need to onboard someone who has the chutzpah and the educational chops to bring us back where we used to be,” Rupert said.
Board member Sarah Leonardi had seconded Zeman’s motion but removed it after discussion, and then Zeman removed the amendment entirely.
Holness then said: “I don’t think we were nitpicking … I think as a board we have an obligation to discuss any item that comes before us … and then make a decision, and I think that’s what we were doing.”