In a dramatic reversal that has angered Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has turned down a job as head of New York City schools.
Carvalho had already privately accepted the job as New York City schools chancellor, which would have made him chief of the nation’s largest school system. Then, after a three-hour meeting in which School Board members, students and members of the public lavished Carvalho with praise, the superintendent appeared to have a change of heart.
“We may have the strength to break an agreement with an adult. I just don’t know how to break a promise to a child, how to break a promise to a community,” Carvalho said, speaking Thursday at an emergency School Board meeting that had been called to discuss the job offer. “That has weighed on me over the last 24 hours like nothing has weighed on me before.”
The meeting was full of theatrics, which Twitter users mocked using the hashtag #TheCarvalhoShow and compared to an episode of “The Bachelor” or the over-wrought 2010 television drama in which LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland for Miami. In the packed auditorium, some in the audience clapped and chanted, “Please don’t go.” Students asked Carvalho for hugs. One local businessman, Adolfo Henriques, offered the support of the business community if it would help the School Board convince Carvalho to stay. Other speakers joked about how bad the weather would be in New York.
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“Whatever is going on in this system that is pushing this man out, y’all need to straighten it out,” said former 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell. “Mr. Carvalho, if you do decide to leave here you’ve got all of our blessings, but ain’t no place like Miami.”
School Board members tried to outdo each other in their lengthy speeches on Carvalho’s merits. “He has taken the district to heights that 20 years ago were only dreamed of,” said board member Marta Pérez. “I think our community is blessed, and I do hope that this superintendent will continue to love us enough to stay with us.”
Then, Carvalho gave an impassioned speech without announcing a decision and asked the School Board for a five-minute break that lasted about 20. He briefly returned to the auditorium and then asked for another break.
The superintendent later said he had asked for the recesses to contact de Blasio and inform the mayor that he would not be accepting the job after all.
Carvalho said his decision was influenced primarily by Miami-Dade students who pleaded with him to stay, including two undocumented immigrant students who reportedly told Carvalho they were afraid of what would happen if he left.
“The voice of kids probably was the most impactful thing,” Carvalho said. “I was appealed to directly by students, particularly senior high school students. I heard from two kids, two undocumented dreamers, who said, ‘I don’t know what my future will be like if you leave.’ ”
The reception in New York City was a far cry from the Miami-Dade School Board meeting. De Blasio’s office had put out a press release late Wednesday praising Carvalho and announcing that the city had offered him the chancellor position.
Then, after Carvalho backed out at the last minute, press secretary Eric Phillips unleashed his fury on Twitter. He said Carvalho had accepted the job more than a week ago and questioned the superintendent’s integrity. “He was a Yes for a week+, until he was a No 15 minutes ago. Bullet dodged,” he tweeted after Carvalho’s announcement. “Who would ever hire this guy again? Who would ever vote for him?”
At a press conference in New York City on Thursday afternoon, de Blasio said he was caught off guard by Carvalho’s decision.
“I thought we had found the right candidate,” de Blasio said. “You can imagine how surprised I was to get a phone call from him a few hours ago.”
“He told me repeatedly this was his dream job,” the mayor added. “Obviously whatever happened here is quite unusual but if he wasn’t interested in the job I don’t know why he flew up here several times and had incessant conversations about all the details and agreed to the release of the information publicly.”
De Blasio said he had already resumed the search for a new schools chancellor. Asked whether he would vacation in Miami any time soon, de Blasio said: “There are a lot of other great places to vacation.”
Carvalho appears to have said one thing to de Blasio and another to the Miami-Dade School Board. Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman said in an interview that Carvalho told her Monday in person that he was thinking about leaving for New York but continued to tell her through Wednesday afternoon that he remained undecided.
She said she wasn’t aware that Carvalho had committed to de Blasio until reading about it the previous evening in news reports.
“He had to think about it,” she said about their Monday meeting. “He was going to sleep on it.”
Hantman said she called Thursday’s meeting to hold a “vote of confidence” for the superintendent in case he intended to stay. She said the meeting would also have served to discuss his replacement should he have chosen to leave.
This isn’t the first time Carvalho has considered a new position. The politically savvy superintendent has long been associated with speculation that he aspired to either a more prestigious position or political office. As recently as last year, his name was floated as a possible candidate for Congress in a seat that will be vacated by retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Although Carvalho has exerted tight control over the school system during his decade-long tenure, he has faced increased scrutiny and criticism from some School Board members in recent years. At Thursday’s meeting, the eight School Board members who were present each gave Carvalho a vote of confidence.
Aventura Mayor Enid Weisman, who hired Carvalho more than 30 years ago as a teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High School and was in the audience Thursday, said she believes the drama at the School Board was not Kabuki theater but a display of authentic emotions. “Miami is in his DNA,” she said.
Under Carvalho’s leadership, Miami-Dade public schools have seen graduation rates and school grades improve. Carvalho has championed school choice initiatives, including magnet schools and specialized programs in everything from conservation biology to art and design. He also founded iPrep Academy, a school where children largely work independently and at their own pace. These accomplishments have earned Carvalho national awards, including being named the nation’s 2014 Superintendent of the Year, and played a role in contract negotiations.
Hantman, who as board chairwoman has negotiated contract extensions and pay raises with the superintendent, said Carvalho’s contract never came up.
But Carvalho has also faced controversies, including an alleged affair with a former Miami Herald education reporter before he became superintendent, and clashes with groups of teachers unhappy over salaries, which they say have not kept pace with the cost of living. Some teachers have accused the school district of ignoring state performance pay laws that require highly rated teachers to be rewarded with more money.
A few speakers at Thursday’s emergency School Board meeting, who have previously been critical of Carvalho’s leadership, said they wished the superintendent well if he decides to leave, but reminded him that if he stays there is “unfinished business” at schools in the urban core, including a need for more extracurricular programs for low-income students.
Miami Herald staff writers Carol Marbin Miller and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.