What was Alberto Carvalho thinking?
Highly ambitious and politically shrewd, the man who rose from undocumented dishwasher to CEO of Miami’s sprawling school system finally had the “most coveted job in education” in his hands and he let it go in spectacular fashion.
By privately agreeing to become New York City’s next schools chancellor and then backing out during an emergency school board meeting broadcast live in two media markets, the former national superintendent of the year spurned a big-city mayor, burned the New York media, and seemingly boxed himself in to his job in Miami. As quickly as the cheers erupted at home, the hype of potential jobs in L.A., New York and D.C. evaporated.
Now, in the aftermath, this much seems certain: Carvalho is staying in Miami, but his ambitions are as big as they’ve ever been. And with his superintendent contract up in 2020, two scenarios seem most likely: negotiate a long-term extension or run for county mayor.
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“He’s accrued an enormous cache of political capital,” said Keith Donner, a longtime political consultant for Miami’s teachers union. “A lot of us are wondering how he’s going to spend it.”
He’s accrued an enormous cache of political capital. A lot of us are wondering how he’s going to spend it.
Keith Donner, political consultant
And that’s how Carvalho likes it.
Since before he even became Miami-Dade’s superintendent — a job he has already held three times longer than the average big-city schools boss — he has flirted with leaving for other jobs and more recently with running for office. His name has been rumored in Los Angeles, and he considered running for Congress last year after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced she was retiring. He briefly surfaced as a rumored gubernatorial candidate ahead of the 2014 elections, and he was at one point a popular pick to mount a challenge against County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose term is up just months after Carvalho’s contract expires.
Carvalho told reporters that he was swayed at the “13th hour” by students and friends who spent hours Thursday lavishing him with praise and begging him to stay. Asked whether he would run for mayor, he said he remains committed to Miami’s youth but didn’t exactly answer the question.
My ambition is the students and the academics in our community and the influence I think we can have on the academic lives of our children.
“My friends celebrated the naming of Alberto Carvalho as chancellor in New York City. My enemies also celebrated that because they wanted me to go,” he said. “I have only one ambition: My ambition is the students and the academics in our community and the influence I think we can have on the academic lives of our children.”
Take that as a denial of political interests, if you like. But how confident are you that Carvalho’s only life mission is in academics? As confident as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was Wednesday that Carvalho was coming to New York?
Xavier Suarez, a county commissioner and former Miami mayor weighing a run to succeed Gimenez in 2020, said the school board spectacle this week had him wondering if a mayoral run was in the superintendent’s future.
“He would be a formidable candidate,” said Suarez, who is also the father of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. “He’s not someone I would like to face as an opponent.”
Donner, speaking on his own behalf as a political consultant, said polls consistently show Carvalho registering positively with around two-thirds of voters. That reputation has been tested before: When the school board sought to fund more than $1 billion in school improvements through a property tax, Carvalho acted as the front man to help sell the deal in tax-weary Miami.
With term limits creating an open seat for mayor, Carvalho would face a crowded field of potential competitors should he run. Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, former Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas and county commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Daniella Levine Cava, Joe Martinez, Jean Monestime and Rebeca Sosa are all considered potential candidates.
To detractors, Carvalho appeared to orchestrate a public pleading for him to remain in Miami by telling reporters and school board members that he was on the fence about New York even while confirming to de Blasio that he was still committed. His soap-opera decision came off as a way to stoke interest in a mayoral run and tame a bucking school board.
“I have never seen or could even fathom a process in which a decision to decline or accept would be made on live television and in a manner that was not timely, appropriate, professional, or even discreet,” Steve Gallon, Carvalho’s harshest critic on the school board, told the Miami Herald in an email. “As a school board member, I would be interested in any coordination that amounted to not only a national spectacle, but a political ambush that may have been intended to weaken the school board’s authority and community support.”
But critics also doubted whether the famously thin-skinned superintendent would actually take the plunge of jumping into a competitive, brutal race for County Hall where past indiscretions and his legacy at the school system would be scrutinized and re-litigated. Furthermore, they questioned whether he overplayed the theatrics this week by humiliating a big-city mayor in such a public way.
I don’t think anybody believes he made that decision from the dais.
Renier Diaz de la Portilla, former Miami-Dade School Board member
“All you have in politics is your word,” said Eric Zichella, a lobbyist and an active donor and bundler on the county’s fundraising circuit who is also a vocal Carvalho critic. “And he has shown his word means nothing at this point. People like to give money to people they trust.”
As news broke Wednesday that Carvalho had been offered the job in New York, former Miami-Dade School Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla found himself reminiscing about 2008, when Carvalho parlayed a job offer in Pinellas County into a better job offer in Miami-Dade after his predecessor was fired.
This time, Diaz de la Portilla said Carvalho’s act seemed equally coordinated, but the motivations less clear.
“He’s highly sought after. But I don’t think the histrionics and drama was necessary,” said Diaz de la Portilla, who remains a big Carvalho supporter. “I don’t think anybody believes he made that decision from the dais.”
If Carvalho doesn’t walk away from the school district, his job as superintendent seems to be his as long as he wants it. Believing he might leave, the eight board members in attendance pleaded with him to stay Thursday, with Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall proclaiming that “If he leaves, we’re going with him!”
Board member Lubby Navarro, among those who requested the special meeting Thursday that ended with Carvalho announcing he’d stay, said she doesn’t believe his decision was theatrics. Board members tell the Miami Herald that Carvalho has not talked about a contract extension or higher pay, and Carvalho himself acknowledged that he’d likely damaged his own professional ceiling by handling the matter the way he did.
“I don’t think he was leveraging this for anything,” Navarro said. “I don’t think he’s doing this for the money. I think I sense in him a higher calling.”
Asked whether she thought Carvalho would pursue political office, Navarro said she thinks he will remain with the school district for the duration of his contract, which ends two months before the general election. But she acknowledged that there could still be surprises in store.
“Stay tuned,” she said. “I don’t think it’s over.”