Education

Now in second decade leading Miami-Dade schools, Carvalho is ‘married to the community’

It had the suspense of LeBron James’ prime-time “Decision” and the drama of a telenovela.

The national media had a name for it: “The Carvalho Show.”

On the first day of March 2018, the Miami-Dade County School Board hastily convened to learn the fate of its superintendent. Was Alberto Carvalho really leaving for New York City, where he had been offered the job of running the nation’s largest school district?

Carvalho had his moment in the national spotlight, and he turned down the job on live television.

Of course he did. Could you imagine “The Carvalho Show” anywhere else?

Carvalho is a Miamian by choice. Not the kind that fled communist Cuba, but one that came from Portugal alone, at 17, without papers. This is where he ascended from teaching science in the urban core to leading the fourth largest school system in the nation.

Miami is where his speeches run during rush hour on public radio. Where strangers recognize his coiffed hair and impeccable suits from TV and tell him they love him — and he tells them he loves them, too. Where a congresswoman waits for him and not the other way around.

And yet, when the School Board met in August 2018 to discuss extending his contract, board members picked it apart. Why was it so hard to decide to keep one of the nation’s top superintendents in his adopted home?

That’s the thing about Carvalho: Even after everything he’s done, 11 years later, people are still making up their minds about him.

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For more than a decade, Carvalho’s highs have been matched by his lows. His storybook rise to superintendent was marred by revelations of an alleged affair with a journalist. His career survived, and he went on to win a trove of awards, including National Superintendent of the Year. Months after that orchestrated will-he-or-won’t-he reality show moment with New York, he helped convince Miami-Dade voters to pass, for the second time, a referendum to help the cash-strapped school system.

His record had made him one of the most visible and well-known leaders in South Florida. But Carvalho remains somewhat of an enigma. Even members of his inner circle have no idea how long he’ll stay or what he’ll do next.

September marked a decade and a year since Carvalho, who just turned 55, became superintendent of nearly 400 public schools in Miami-Dade County. That’s a tenure more than three times longer than the average for a big city superintendent.

After School Board members debated extending his contract, the superintendent addressed the board. His brow furrowed, and his voice steadied. It wasn’t personal, he said. Was it?

“I never thought that you would see that my staying longer would be a hindrance,” he said.

The Miami Herald pored over School Board agendas, minutes and schedules and interviewed Carvalho and more than 30 people in his orbit, including current and former School Board members, colleagues, politicians and associates, to delve into how the most popular un-elected official in Miami came to be.

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Alberto Carvalho participates in a community discussion run by the Herald in this photo from July 13, 2000. David Bergman Miami Herald Staff

A storybook rise

Carvalho often says he sees himself in his students: An immigrant. An English language learner. Homeless. Alone.

At 17, he packed up what little he had and left his mother, father and five siblings behind in Lisbon. It was 1982. When New York City didn’t work out, he thought of where he could go next. Scenes of balmy South Florida beaches on his black-and-white TV set stuck with him.

In Fort Lauderdale, he sold suits, took handyman jobs and worked as a chef and waiter to pay for classes at Broward Community College. He waited and bused tables at the restaurant of the late Congressman E. Clay Shaw, who hooked him up with a student visa and work permit. A $2,000 loan from a nun got him to graduation at Barry University. He picked up English and Spanish in addition to his native Portuguese.

He looked for teaching positions. Miami Jackson Senior High needed a science teacher.

The 25-year-old, looking no older than 18, told Assistant Principal Enid Weisman, during the job interview, that he wanted to be a superintendent.

“Chutzpah,” Weisman, now the mayor of Aventura, called it. “To have never spent one day in a classroom. ... He’s the only person who’s ever said that to me.”

Bright and articulate, Carvalho was hired on the spot in 1990. He promised administrators he’d wear the sharpest of suits to stand out among students. His coworkers called him “Armani.” High school girls wrote him love letters, Weisman recalled. (Carvalho doesn’t remember that, but said he does remember receiving candy hearts and chocolates from students.)

Jackson held another future political connection for Carvalho. Fedrick Ingram, the former president of United Teachers of Dade who is now president of the statewide teachers’ union, was one of his students.

“He’s always been the same person,” Ingram said. “Very suit and tie, very put together.”

Carvalho says he doesn’t remember declaring his aspirations in his job interview. He does remember feeling fed up seeing brand new textbooks locked away in a storage closet. So when he heard a superintendent speak in his third year of teaching, he saw solutions — and a career path. He became an assistant principal two years later.

Carvalho crossed paths again with Weisman in 1996 when he was tapped to help her open William H. Turner Tech High, billed as the school of the future. Behind the scenes, Assistant Principal Carvalho charted the school’s path and gave up weekends to tutor students. And he started working the speaking circuit, traveling to out-of-state conferences to deliver keynote addresses on school reform and career preparation.

Yet Carvalho never became principal of his own school — at least, not in the usual way. He didn’t need to. Soon he was asked to come downtown and handle federal grants for schools with high populations of low-income students for the school district.

He never returned to the schoolhouse. But later he would appoint himself as principal of a boutique downtown school, his own school of the future, iPrep Academy.

So began his rise at district headquarters. Each job added a tool to his chest. Five years in government relations sharpened his political instincts. But it was his two years as chief communications officer that taught him the power of the media and where he mastered the art of the image — which many say are his biggest assets.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, knew Carvalho then.

“Alberto was as hungry as anybody I’ve ever seen in a job like that,” Casserly said. “He was skilled, he was talented, he was eager to be a success.”

Challenges at the start

These are brighter days for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

They weren’t always like that.

When Carvalho took over in 2008, the school district had nine inner-city schools on the state’s shutdown list. The recession was bearing down on a district that was academically underwhelming and organizationally bloated.

Former Superintendent Rudy Crew’s tenure with the School Board had reached a boiling point and he had been shown the door. Crew, now the president of Medgar Evers College in New York City, declined to comment for this story.

Four days into his superintendency, Carvalho gathered his close advisers and secretaries in his ninth-floor panoramic office well after hours. Weisman was there:

“He looked at us and he said, ‘I’ve already transformed into my new role, and none of you have.’ ” (Carvalho remembers that meeting.)

Weisman describes him as a chameleon.

“He capitalizes on the art of the deal,” Weisman said. “He visualizes where he wants to be maybe tomorrow, maybe two years. He visualizes himself in roles.”

She added: “Maybe he plays a role so well, we don’t know where the real ends and the fiction begins.”

Carvalho was on a new schedule of 4 a.m. wake-ups. He cultivated a new cabinet of loyalists — media-friendly and always camera-ready.

With the limelight came control.

Take the ongoing saga of WLRN. The Miami-Dade County School Board has retained the broadcasting license for South Florida’s sole public radio news station for decades. It’s why School Board meetings are broadcast to listeners in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and why the superintendent’s address runs at the 5 p.m. rush hour.

Carvalho’s administration drafted a new operating agreement with WLRN in 2017 that would have forced reporters and editors employed by an independent nonprofit to reapply for jobs and work directly for the school district. The school district backed off and is currently soliciting a third-party management entity to run WLRN. The Miami Herald and WLRN have a partnership agreement.

And the New York debacle? Carvalho said he was breaking a promise among adults to keep a promise with children, but text messages with New York staff later revealed he haggled over speaking fees and was dismayed that he was dealing with staff and not the mayor. When the Miami-Dade School Board was beginning to buck him, some members reduced themselves to begging him to stay.

Carvalho had created a power play in which he forced Miami to basically negotiate against itself. He maneuvered the School Board that day just like he had in the past decade.

Early in his superintendency, Carvalho started paying attention to the spate of shootings beyond the schoolyard that left his students dead. He started making appearances at Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. TV cameras followed.

“My name is Alberto Carvalho,” he told the radio show “This American Life” in February 2013. “Over the past 4½ years, I have buried or attended viewings for 44 children who have died violent deaths right here in our community.”

He is engrossed in the job. He’s led workouts at the school district gym. He scribbles thoughts, ideas, musings, whatever on whiteboards throughout the ninth floor of the school district alone during his “quiet time” on the weekends.

“My wife often says that I’m really married to the community and she is my closest family member,” Carvalho said. “But I’m married to the community. Maybe she’s right.”

(Carvalho did not make his wife of 21 years, Maria Borgia Carvalho, or adult daughter Alexandra of a previous marriage, available for interviews.)

As things turned around for the school district, his brand started to flourish — and so did his national reputation.

Carvalho put his ideas into motion. In 2009, he wanted to start a dual-enrollment program for students in partnership with Florida International University. He came dressed in a suit to a Golden Panthers football game to ask Mark Rosenberg, the new president, if FIU could foot the million-dollar bill.

Rosenberg agreed on the spot, without even knowing if he had the authority to agree to such a request. His children attended Miami-Dade County Public Schools and he says he’s seen a stronger crop of students produced by the school district under Carvalho.

“There’s no question that they are better, but expectations have grown, too,” he said.

In a district where three out of four students qualify for subsidized lunch and 62,000 of them are still learning English, there have been no traditional public schools earning an F for three years. Now just one D school remains. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, with 345,000 students, is an A-rated school district for the second year in a row.

That success has brought hardware. Honors adorn the walls and cabinets and sit stacked and stuffed in the drawers of the office Carvalho says he hardly spends time in:

Florida Superintendent of the Year

National Superintendent of the Year

Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education

National Urban Superintendent of the Year

National Association for Bilingual Education Superintendent of the Year

Broad Prize for Urban Education — the Nobel Prize of education.

There are photos with President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and actress Goldie Hawn from that time she and Carvalho spoke about mindfulness and then got dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab.

Carvalho has 57,000 followers on Twitter — more than local accounts of Luther Campbell, FlU and the mayors of Miami-Dade County and Miami combined. Teachers, parents, students, custodians all tweet at @MiamiSup, and it’s really him on the other end, staying on-brand and on-message as he tweets district news, condolences, pop culture takes, platitudes and his own thoughts on daily events. There is no shortage of selfies with students who line up to take a photo with him.

He relates to them: His favorite rappers are Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Flo Rida and basically any artist from Miami.

How does he relate to so many people on a personal level? He calls it a “very good method of face, place and statement association.”

He even has standing privileges to work La Ventanita at Versailles, a photo op usually used by politicians on the national campaign trail. Restaurant spokeswoman Nicole Valls says Carvalho has been stopping by periodically for a few years now.

“The customers love it. They take pictures with him,” Valls wrote in an email.

Could anyone really do what he does? Even his biggest critics agree his clout is good for the district.

“Alberto likes the limelight and is successful in it and puts a positive face on our public schools,” said Karen Aronowitz, former president of United Teachers of Dade. “I’d rather have him than a hundred others.”

“I don’t like him, but I do think he was the right man for the job,” said Shawn Beightol, a teacher who took him to court over slashed teacher wages.

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Alberto Carvalho has been superintendent of the fourth-largest school system in the country for a decade. That’s more than three times longer than the average tenure for a superintendent. We sit down with Carvalho to reflect on 11 years in the post: What are his highlights? His regrets? And where does he go from here? Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Regrets

Carvalho doesn’t like to talk about his regrets. Especially not the one that could’ve cost him the superintendency.

A desperate Miami-Dade School Board cut a lot of corners when it chose Carvalho in 2008. Crew was ousted and a replacement was needed. Quick.

There was no national search. Carvalho was already the pick to be superintendent of Pinellas County. He leveraged that opportunity with Miami-Dade, and board members put his name on the short list.

The next day, someone delivered a packet of emails to media outlets. They were between Carvalho, then an associate superintendent, and the Miami Herald’s former education reporter, Tania deLuzuriaga.

From October 2006 to September 2007, deLuzuriaga wrote long, pained love letters to Carvalho. They discussed other Herald reporters, coverage, the inclusion (or absence) of quotes from Carvalho in her stories and how he should prepare for his interview in Pinellas.

The emails were salacious, and, a decade later, not forgotten.

Carvalho, at the time, questioned the authenticity of the emails. He suggested they may have been doctored. Then he said they may be real, but he deleted them without reading them.

He still maintains some of those emails weren’t his. He didn’t have a romantic relationship with deLuzuriaga but “a friendship that was rather free.” He calls his own emails inappropriate.

“Tania landed a job at Harvard, and in the end she succeeded,” he said, referring to deLuzuriaga’s current career in public relations. “When it comes to judgment calls, we can all make better decisions in retrospect.”

Would he have remained superintendent today in the era of #MeToo?

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Carvalho said. “It’s beyond me what the consequence would’ve been in today’s time.”

DeLuzuriaga was a rising star at the Boston Globe when the emails became public. She resigned from that job and later started a career in public relations that led her to Harvard University. She did not respond to requests for comment.

“We can never rewrite the past,” Carvalho said. “I think the future has turned out bright for Ms. deLuzuriaga as I think the future has turned out bright for me as well.”

The board members weren’t happy about the alleged affair, but they still appointed him by a vote of 6-3.

Former School Board member Ana Rivas Logan said the scandal cost him her vote. There was already enough upheaval in the school district.

“It just seems like the only one who really gets hurt is the woman,” she told the Herald.

Marta Perez, who has been on the board since 1998, dissented for another reason. The board never publicly announced it would consider Carvalho, she said. And yet somehow, Carvalho’s supporters knew to show up at the district headquarters to speak in favor of his candidacy.

“I did not vote against him. I voted against the process,” Perez said.

A similar drama played out when Carvalho flirted with the New York job in 2018.

He said he doesn’t regret turning down that job. Becoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education guy would’ve meant sharing the spotlight and losing the flexibility, range and control he enjoys in Miami.

De Blasio’s communications team denied requests for comment. His press secretary at the time blasted Carvalho on Twitter.

“Not even New York City is big enough for Alberto Carvalho’s ego and it’s clear now that he wouldn’t have survived here,” Eric Phillips, who no longer works for de Blasio, told the Herald.

All that glitters?

Skeptics say Miami-Dade’s gold is too glittery. They’ve called into question some of the school district’s standout statistics.

Some of Carvalho’s biggest critics are from the African-American community. They feel they’ve been left behind on every front: academics, procurement with local businesses and facility upgrades at schools.

“We are aware of all of his accolades locally and nationally, but I believe we have some unfinished business when it comes to some of the things we hold near and dear to our community,” said William D.C. Clark, president of I.C.A.R.E. (Inner City Alumni for Responsible Education).

A disparity study commissioned by the district so it could have the legal backing to set race-based procurement goals found that out of $600 million spent on the 2012 general obligation bond approved by voters to fix ailing schools and upgrade technology, $32 million went to prime black vendors. But $20 million of that went to one firm.

It’s an issue Ron Frazier has dealt with for years. The former chair of the school district’s Small Business Advisory Committee got involved with the bond to make sure the black community was not forgotten about again. A general obligation bond passed in 1988 didn’t benefit schools in black communities.

Since then, more blacks and women have been added to the district’s procurement teams. And policies have been put in place to better reflect the community the district serves. District staff members now say contracts for minority businesses are on the rise.

“I think there’s slowly been improvement, not to the level I would like to see,” Frazier said.

The commission created to assess the events leading up to, during and after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland singled out Miami-Dade when looking at disciplinary statistics. It publicly doubted that zero physical attacks took place anywhere in the school district in 2017-18 while a single elementary school in Gainesville had 11.

State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, a close friend of Carvalho’s, pointed out at a Senate committee meeting that the district reported no homicides for the 2009-10 school year when a student was stabbed to death at Coral Gables Senior High.

Guess which school had the highest number of reported discipline incidents in Miami-Dade in 2017-18, the latest data available: Wealthy Pinecrest’s Palmetto Senior High.

WLRN pointed out a similar issue in 2017. The district said then what it’s saying now: The discrepancies are a matter of over-reporting incidents, inconsistent reporting to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of Education and administrators at each school not being on the same page for defining infractions.

A big footprint

The Miami-Dade County school district is the largest public employer in Miami-Dade County with 40,000 workers. About half of them are teachers.

When it comes to pay, teachers might’ve lost the most under the Carvalho administration.

They suffered during the recession. Some teachers missed out on raises while others lost thousands of promised dollars during what would’ve been prime earning years. A group of teachers sued over it.

A task force born out of a School Board member’s proposal recommended a property tax increase to raise funds to give teachers a hefty supplement for four years. Voters overwhelmingly approved, for the second time, paying more to help the school district.

Aronowitz, the past union leader, appreciated the hike, but said Carvalho was bad at sharing the credit.

“There would be things that the union had proposed years ago that never came to fruition when we were negotiating,” she said. “Then they’re put in place and he’s getting credit for coming up with it.”

Carvalho and the union tout that Miami-Dade teachers are paid above the national average, however two-thirds of today’s workforce still make below that figure. Now, many mid-career teachers barely make more than an entry-level teacher with the referendum supplement.

Current UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats said the union has had “good days and bad days” during Carvalho’s tenure.

“However, we acknowledge that at a time when public schools are constantly underfunded and given tenuous mandates, he has been able to collaborate with the union for the betterment of our unit, cared for the well-being of students, and ensured that the conditions of our education system have steadily improved for Miami-Dade,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

What’s next?

Carvalho won’t put an expiration date on his superintendency.

His contract was extended last year to 2023. That would be a 15-year tenure as superintendent, the second-longest in the Miami-Dade school district’s history. (C.M. Fisher served as superintendent from 1921 to 1937.)

His base salary is around $353,000. He got a raise and a contract extension in 2015 after it was rumored the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school system in the country, was looking to lure him away.

Some believe the end will come as 2020 warms up.

He swears he’s not interested in running for political office, even for mayor of Miami-Dade County. He won’t rule it out, either. He’s asked about it all the time.

“I’ve said it repeatedly,” Carvalho said. “I have no intention of running for office in 2020. There is no position that’s available that quite frankly I feel like [I] connect as aggressively with other than the superintendency in Miami-Dade.”

Pollsters say he’d win it handily.

“He is the most popular un-elected official in Miami-Dade County,” said campaign consultant Steve Marin.

“No one else has numbers like him,” said campaign consultant Keith Donner.

He inserted himself into Miami’s Major League Soccer saga, frustrating the ones elected to fight that battle. He unsuccessfully proposed that the School Board would become a partner in a soccer stadium deal that would also open a magnet school.

And when officials were threatening to raid schools to find undocumented students, he said: “Over my dead body.”

He went on the campaign trail and passed a multimillion-dollar commitment from taxpayers to pay for a cop in every school, all to avoid arming teachers.

Carvalho has been careful to play both sides: Instead of tamping down on charter schools and voucher-like scholarships, he accepted a challenge to compete with them. He even accepted an invitation as the keynote speaker for an organization formerly chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the American Federation for Children, though a scheduling issue prevented his appearance.

Carvalho tweets like a liberal, but the independent voter isn’t a villain to the proponents for charter schools and vouchers. He brags about the competition, often parsing out favorable statistics for traditional schools when charters are excluded. And he turned it into a side hustle: The school district offers management services to charters, and seven charter schools have taken them up on it.

Charter school lobbyist and former state Rep. Ralph Arza can see Carvalho as a viable candidate for governor.

“He doesn’t have any open enemies in this community who are out to get him in politics,” he said. “He makes sure he doesn’t have any.”

Other observers have doubts. In any other run for office, Carvalho would have to draft legislation, make compromises, take on more public enemies.

“He’s got to be a little more open to criticism and he needs to grow a thicker skin because it’s a different environment when you’re putting your name on a ballot versus when you’re appointed,” said former two-time School Board member and state representative Renier Diaz de la Portilla.

Community activist Tangela Sears, an ally of Carvalho’s, can’t see him anywhere else.

“Alberto is obsessed with education and kids,” she said. “I think because of his involvements and engagements people think he wants to run for office. I don’t see him really separating himself from kids.”

Ask Carvalho what’s left to do and he’ll tell you: There are pockets of kids falling behind in schools with good letter grades. The target for 2021 is a graduation rate of 90% (that figure now is 89% excluding charter schools). He harps on his promise that he’ll accept no salary in his last year on the job.

He’s been reading up on the high school of the future. He’s fascinated with the future of work in a decade or two and how to prepare students for the thousands of jobs that will vanish.

A school that breaks the mold: The day starts later and ends later. There’s no mandated seat time, and there is no traditional school year. The classrooms are hospitals and courtrooms and TV stations. There will be artificial intelligence, digitization, automation “side by side” with a highly effective committed teacher.

“I think the one thing we know about the future... is that it’s going to come,” Carvalho said. “You cannot stop it. And with it come changes.”

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