Alberto Carvalho stuns New York City by turning down chancellor job after first accepting it

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in 2012. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho shocked New York City, South Florida, and the entire education world on Thursday, reneging on his decision to move north and lead the country’s largest school system in an emotional, livestreamed school board meeting.

Only a day earlier, officials in the New York City’s mayor’s office made the move seem like a done deal, confirming that the high-profile education leader would make the move north. Carvalho himself confirmed at the meeting’s stunning conclusion that he had accepted the position.

But after an outpouring of support that included an unusual “vote of confidence” from school board members, Carvalho stunned everyone by appearing to change his mind in real time, seeming to refer to his repeated promise to stay in Miami until his contract is up in 2020.

“I just don’t know how to break a promise to a child, how to break a promise to a community. And that has weighed on me in the past 24 hours,” Carvalho said.

At 1:15 p.m., Carvalho requested a second break during the meeting, which began at 10 a.m. He implied that he needed to reach de Blasio to turn down the job.

“Give us a minute, folks. We’re also sorting through the weirdness,” Eric Phillips, the mayor’s spokesman, tweeted.

Shortly afterward, Carvalho returned to the meeting and delivered his final decision: He would stay in Miami.

“I underestimated the emotional tug, the level of commitment, the power that crying members of the community have had on me,” Carvalho said. “After speaking with the honorable Mayor Bill de Blasio … I shall remain in Miami-Dade as your superintendent.”

Cavalho talks to Miami’s school board chair during a break in the meeting Thursday.

In a press conference after the announcement, Carvalho said it was “not an easy conversation.”

Phillips sent a series of scathing tweets after Carvalho announced his decision and suggested there had been an agreement between Carvalho and the mayor for more than a week.

“He was a Yes for a week+, until he was a No 15 minutes ago. Bullet dodged,” Phillips said in one tweet. “Who would ever hire this guy again? Who would ever vote for him?”

It’s a humiliating setback for New York City, which has been searching for a new schools chief since Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced in December that she planned to retire.

In recent days, Fariña embarked on what seemed like a valedictory tour, and city officials said they were close to announcing a new hire. Now they will have to restart the search — with the added challenge of recruiting people who know they were not the first choice.

Carvalho’s shocking decision means that Miami will avoid a superintendent search that board members said they were unwilling to entertain.

“He’s not going to leave us. We will make sure of that,” board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall pledged during the meeting. “We will fight. We will fight. We will fight.”

First Person

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

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.