Will Broward schools superintendent's support of masking kids prove her undoing?

A previously constituted school board voted to fire Vickie Cartwright. With new members, they could well decide to change course and keep her. But then there's the issue of the COVID mask mandate she supported.

Dr. Vickie L. Cartwright, Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, helps children find books to be given out for summer reading in this file photo.

Dr. Vickie L. Cartwright, Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, helps children find books to be given out for summer reading in this file photo. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright came into the job this year with high hopes and plenty of energy. She was a fierce proponent of public schools, even pounding the pavement in some Broward neighborhoods to ask parents who had given up on the system to bring back their kids. 

Now, less than 10 months after she started, Cartwright – who came from Oshkosh, Wisconsin – could be out of work. And it may be at least in part because of her support of a student mask mandate.  

The new nine-member Broward County School Board is expected to discuss her future with the district at their Dec. 13 meeting, even though the previous board voted last month to fire her. That board, which included members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, was quickly dubbed the ‘reform board.’ But they have departed and new members have come on since the November election. 

The move came amid discussion of an audit showing that families had been collectively overcharged by a vendor more than $330,000 for graduation cap and gowns in the span of a year. On Tuesday night, the Sun Sentinel reported the same company "could potentially face a criminal investigation" as well. 

Cartwright is still serving as superintendent; her contract required that she be given 60 days of notice before a termination. Board members are seeking a replacement superintendent, but they could decide simply to rehire Cartwright – assuming she wants to stay. She was unavailable for comment this week. 

Shortly after he voted to fire Cartwright, former board member Daniel Foganholi said reinstating her would be a move backward, stressing the decision was not political. The other DeSantis appointed members who voted to axe Cartwright were Torey Alston, Manuel Serrano, Ryan Reiter and Kevin Tynan. The minority of four elected board members – Lori Alhadeff, Debbi Hixon, Sarah Leonardi and Nora Rupert – wanted Cartwright to stay.

The four new members – Jeff Holness, Brenda Fam, Allen Zeman and Rod Velez – have not yet said publicly where they stand. Velez has not been sworn in because of a clemency matter involving a felony conviction in 1995. Fam, however, previously has spoken in favor of firing Cartwright.

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One thing’s clear: Cartwright had spoken out for the district’s student mask mandate. "For us, we’re seeing a difference and that makes a difference for all of our students,” she said last year. “The only difference has been the mask.” DeSantis, on the other hand, opposed mask mandates, and lawmakers earlier this year “called for shifting $200 million away from school districts that required students to wear masks last year during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the News Service of Florida reported. 

They eventually decided not to take money away from the 12 districts that imposed student mask mandates – Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia – but rather made ineligible to get bonus money from a separate pot of funds. 

Moreover, Broward’s school board came under scrutiny when a grand jury report completed in April 2021 was released earlier this year. Major problems included the overall atmosphere and culture among high-level district personnel. There were lingering safety concerns related to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which 17 students and staff members were killed. And there were questions over the $800 million bond referendum for school construction and renovations, under which significant amounts of work had not been completed. 

DeSantis responded by suspending four members of the Board. Only one of his appointees, Alston, remains. DeSantis may yet appoint someone to take Velez’s place.

Shortly after the board announced its decision to fire her, Cartwright said she was "shocked and surprised" but that she would continue to act with integrity and with an emphasis on students. 

David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers city government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.

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