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Five critical questions facing New York City after Carvalho’s rejection of chancellor job

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio, at a drawing board.

New York City’s education world was left spinning Thursday, after Miami superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced he wouldn’t be taking the helm of the country’s largest school district — despite already agreeing to do so.

The about-face stunned onlookers in Miami and New York, including Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesman, who tweeted his shock in real time. De Blasio is expected to speak at a press conference later today, but the sudden turn of events means we have more questions than answers.

Here are the critical ones we’re working to answer. We’ve updated this with some answers the the mayor’s office offered on Thursday, and we will continue to add information as we learn more.

1. Will current Chancellor Carmen Fariña be convinced to stick around any longer?

This one we have an answer to: At a press conference Thursday afternoon, de Blasio says Fariña would “be continuing her role until the end of March.”

That means de Blasio is on a tight timeline if he wants to meet the goal he set when he initially announced her retirement in December: for Fariña to continue in her post until the city found a replacement. The 52-year education department veteran has been on a farewell tour over the last few weeks, conducting exit interviews and penning what seemed like her final op-eds.

2. Will the city turn to an interim schools chief?

The circumstances may force it. Speculation had already been mounting that the mayor might have to appoint one as the search process dragged on for months. A city official told Chalkbeat earlier this week that City Hall was prepared to name an interim for a very short transition period — but only after a permanent appointment was announced.

One obvious choice for an interim is Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson. Gibson is the education department’s second in command and has held many positions in the city’s school system, including principal and superintendent. But she has also kept a relatively low profile, which raises questions about whether she will be chosen to fill such a public position even temporarily.

“We’re going to have a new chancellor soon,” de Blasio said Thursday. “That’s all I want to say about it.”

3. Who’s next on City Hall’s chancellor candidate list?

That’s the million-dollar question. Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida, has been floated as a potential candidate. But questions have also been raised about whether she wanted the job and was criticized by Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers.

Other names in the mix include Kelvin Adams, the superintendent of the St. Louis public schools, whom Weingarten said she supported.

Regent Kathleen Cashin, a former superintendent in New York City, and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have also been mentioned in conversations about Fariña’s successor. However, both seem unlikely choices and do not fulfill the de Blasio administration’s desire to find someone outside of New York

4. Will anyone want the job now, and what will they demand to be paid?

De Blasio attempted to project confidence on Thursday. “There has been a huge amount of interest. There are a lot of great candidates,” he said.

But Carvalho’s stunning announcement will undoubtedly make the next phase of the search process challenging. It will be clear to the next batch of candidates that they were not the top choice. The media circus Thursday will attract more attention to the pick, and may not inspire confidence in the de Blasio’s administration’s ability to sell the job or retain top leadership.  

On top of that, the mayor might have to pay the new candidate more than he otherwise would have.

The $353,000 salary New York City publicly offered Carvalho — and what any chancellor candidate will now likely demand — would put New York City on the competitive side of other urban districts. New York City has historically paid its chancellors less, with Fariña’s base salary coming in at $234,569. (She made far more in total thanks to her pension.)

That higher salary makes New York more competitive with the second-largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified, which is also looking for a new leader and paid its previous superintendent $350,000.

On Carvalho’s salary, de Blasio said, it was “perfectly legitimate for people to say, hey, wait a minute, I’m being better compensate for a much smaller school system – what’s wrong with this picture?”

“In this case, his request was for us to consider a matching current salary, we thought that was fair.”

5. Does this change how de Blasio will conduct the search?

It doesn’t appear likely. 

From the beginning, de Blasio committed to conducting a search behind closed doors. While he argued the secrecy is important to keep personnel decisions above the fray of politics, many parents and advocates have expressed frustration about the lack of public input. Now, that his initial behind-the-scenes deal has combusted, some are hoping the mayor will choose a more transparent path as he recruits the next candidate.

Some advocates are already jumping at the chance to call for a new open process.

“After this disappointment, Mayor de Blasio has an obligation to lead boldly with a transparent, inclusive process,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence in a statement. “He can begin that process today.”

Mark Treyger, chairman of city council’s education committee, said that City Hall had not briefed him ahead of time about Carvalho. After this morning’s news broke, he sent what appeared to be a warning shot that de Blasio should embrace a more open process now.

“In order to make well-informed decisions, you have to involve critical stakeholders,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to being a part of the conversation regarding who will eventually accept the position of Chancellor of the largest school system in the country.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting

First Person

I covered Alberto Carvalho in Miami. Here’s why I’m not surprised he snubbed New York City.

PHOTO: NY1
Cavalho talks to Miami's school board chair during a break in the stunning meeting Thursday.

To kick off each school year, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho gathers the district’s principals and his top education officials for a dramatic motivational show.

With slick visuals, live student performances, and moody stage lighting, Carvalho lays out his vision for the year ahead in an event that feels part TED Talk, part Broadway production. The yearly spectacle is an example of Carvalho in his element: In the spotlight, building excitement, and confidently selling his message — in multiple languages.

This week, Carvalho’s over-the-top flair was broadcast for all of New York City to experience. And after spending years reporting on Carvalho and the Miami-Dade County school system, I can’t say I was surprised by the marathon board meeting or his eventual snub of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

I was more shocked that he had seriously considered leaving in the first place.

Those outside of Florida don’t realize how good Carvalho has it in his adopted hometown, and how much he would be giving up if he left. After Carvalho finally made his big reveal, an education insider there told me: “Here in Miami, he is the king.”

Hyperbole, maybe. But that sentiment was certainly on display as students, business leaders, and the school board begged Carvalho — for hours, on live television — to stay.

In his almost three decades working in South Florida’s political ecosystem, and the country’s fourth-largest school district, Carvalho has masterfully cultivated political popularity and power. Carvalho reports to Miami’s elected school board, but he has deftly handled his relationship with its members for most of his tenure so that they almost always approve his agenda unanimously. When he was rumored to be a contender to lead Los Angeles schools — the second-largest district in the country — I watched the board prematurely open his contract and give him a raise.

That unity has eroded a bit after the last election, which ushered in some more independent members, and perhaps pushed Carvalho to flirt with decamping for New York City. Still, as the theatrics came to a climax on Thursday, his board hastily called for a symbolic vote of confidence in Carvalho. Every official present voted in favor.

On television, the vote looked strange. In Miami, it probably seemed normal.

In New York City, by contrast, the star superintendent would have had to start building that personal and political following from scratch — and play second fiddle to a mayor with his own national ambitions. Politico Florida pointed out on Friday that Carvalho would have to work with a chief of staff picked by the mayor. That was never going to sit well with Carvalho, who is used to being completely in command. “Mayoral control” is a very different thing.

In his brief introduction to New York City, Carvalho was already under a kind of scrutiny he rarely receives back home. As the theatrics unfolded, the media were quick to comment on Carvalho’s showmanship — and the criticism only grew sharper as the day continued.

“If Carvalho had taken the job he would have been chewed up by an NYC press corps that spits out pompous self promoters like phlegm,” one City Hall reporter tweeted.

In New York, the narrative he has built around the climb of Miami-Dade schools, and his own leadership, was likely to meet a far more skeptical audience. Already, there are cracks that could be easily pried open: his plan to eliminate out-of-school suspensions seems to have fallen short of his lofty promises, for example. And contrary to claims that achievement gaps closed substantially under Carvalho’s watch, wide disparities by students’ race and economic status persisted — in some cases shrinking, others growing, and still others holding steady.

In New York, when it finally became apparent he was breaking up with the city before even beginning his relationship here, jaws dropped and Carvalho’s future job prospects were declared dead. While it’s true that Thursday’s spectacle could be an albatross if Carvalho sets his sights elsewhere, it’s not clear to me that he’ll want to.

In Miami, Thursday’s decision branded him a hero who followed his heart and picked his longtime community over prestige. It’s easy to see how that would could play well in any bid for a higher position within the community that lobbied hard to keep him.

As a Florida native who has transplanted here, I know it’s hard for New Yorkers to accept that Carvalho could be truly happy to reign over the Sunshine State. But I’d like to make a shameless plug for my birthplace and all its wacky beauty.

It’s been years since Florida surpassed New York to become the third-most populous state in the country, and its national clout is real. And Miami itself is the kind of place that gets under your skin. Have you guys tried cafecito? (While we’re on it, where can I find some of that sugary, highly caffeinated Cuban coffee in Manhattan? I’m desperate!)

Maybe I’m just projecting here, but it feels sincere when Carvalho professes his love for the place, as he is wont to do on Twitter. After commuting in a nor’easter today, I can’t say I blame him.

the wood

The big loser in the Carvalho chaos, according to New York City papers: Bill de Blasio

It’s not every day that education news makes the cover of New York City’s local papers.

But that’s what happened today, the morning after Miami’s star superintendent shocked the city — and country — by turning down the schools chancellor job on live TV. Read all our coverage.

The New York Daily News and New York Post both used their legendary front pages to process the surprising news, with covers that mock Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The Post’s front page is less nuanced. It shows de Blasio in a bridal gown, sitting dejected on an altar. “Jilted!” the main headline reads.

The Daily News cover features a chastened de Blasio at a chalkboard — emblazoned with Carvalho’s winning grin — writing the words “I will not get ahead of myself” repeatedly. The implication is that the mayor botched the chancellor search by letting news of Carvalho’s selection reach the public before Carvalho was ready to commit — although the Miami superintendent said himself on Thursday that he had agreed to take the job.

Some New Yorkers stood up for the mayor on social media, accusing the papers of being ungenerous. Here’s one reaction on Twitter to the Daily News cover:

The Daily News offered a more sympathetic take in an editorial cartoon by Bill Bramhall, which shows de Blasio being burned by an exploded torpedo named Carvalho. The suggestion is that Carvalho was the destructive force on Thursday, not the mayor — and that de Blasio is suffering as a result, but presumably protected others around him, including the 1.1 million children who attend city schools, from extensive damage.