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.

tick tock

What happened when: Inside the circus that was the Carvalho pick and sudden rejection

PHOTO: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio thought his search for a schools chancellor was wrapping up.

After a lengthy search, city officials had identified a top contender in Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, a rising star in education circles who would have been a high-profile get for the mayor. Almost two weeks ago, Carvalho was offered the job leading the nation’s largest school district. A week ago, after many conversations and clandestine trips to the city, Carvalho signaled he would take it.

Then on Thursday, it all fell apart in dramatic fashion during a four-hour emergency school board meeting in Miami that was carried live on television. It all left New York City back at square one.    

“Like many of you, I was very surprised by Mr. Carvalho’s decision,” de Blasio said at a packed news conference Thursday afternoon, at which he described the timeline of the city’s discussions with Carvalho. “I thought we had found the right candidate.”

The surprise turn of events left education observers in both cities wondering what happened in the time between Carvalho apparently confirming that he would move to New York City and his statement that stunned the mayor and his top officials.

Here’s what we know so far about how the events played out across two cities.

The city’s courtship of Carvalho involved multiple meetings with the mayor at Gracie Mansion — one in January and another in February, according to mayoral spokesman Eric Phillips.

In Miami, rumors began swirling on Tuesday that Carvalho had been offered the post. School board member Martin Karp met with the superintendent the next day on the seventh floor of the school board building in downtown Miami.

Karp says he didn’t ask whether Carvalho had already made up his mind — perhaps the long-serving school board member didn’t want to hear the answer. Instead, he made a final case for Miami, and walked away thinking his city still had a chance to keep its longtime superintendent.

“I felt that he’s vested around 30 years in this community, that he has a lot of ties here, that he has established a tremendous amount of relationships,” Karp said. “You work very hard to establish those things.”

By Wednesday afternoon, news that the search had narrowed to Carvalho had spread beyond South Florida — and reached the rest of Miami’s school board members, who called an emergency meeting just after 4:30 p.m.

“There was an unusual situation in terms of some news starting to move around,” de Blasio said at the press conference Thursday. “His school board as a result called this meeting.”

The media was indeed onto the story. At 4:52 p.m., Chalkbeat informed City Hall of plans to immediately run a story reporting that the search had narrowed to Carvalho.

The city already had reached an agreement to share the news with Politico that Carvahlo was the city’s choice, and de Blasio said that at about 5 p.m, Carvalho “confirmed that he was very comfortable giving the information to Politico.”

Politico broke the news at 5:20 p.m. Immediately after, City Hall officials began confirming to the other reporters and the public that Carvalho was the pick.

Carvalho was quickly overwhelmed with messages of support and pleas for him to stay. The superintendent said 500 texts clogged his inbox, along with as many missed phone calls.

In lower Manhattan, City Hall scrambled to notify members of the Panel for Educational Policy, the school-oversight board which had been scheduled to vote Wednesday evening on the largest round of proposed school closures since de Blasio took office.

Panel members were hastily assembled at 5:30 p.m. and placed on a conference call with City Hall officials, who explained that Carvalho would be the next chancellor. Some of the members expressed frustration that they had only been brought in the loop after the news had been publicly reported.

“Panel members were very upset by this whole thing,” said one person who was in the room.

By 6:30 p.m., Carvalho’s chief spokeswoman released a cryptic statement: “The superintendent has been offered the job, but has not yet accepted,” wrote Daisy Gonzalez-Diego. (That was the start of a back-and-forth over the nature of Carvalho’s communication with de Blasio that would last into Thursday, with Gonzalez-Diego telling Miami public radio affiliate WLRN, “I don’t know that ‘accepted’ the job was the right word.”)

Despite the breaking news, the Panel for Educational Policy members were scheduled to vote on a series of 13 school closures. As they prepared to start what would become one of the most contentious panel meetings in recent history, Chancellor Carmen Fariña told at least one panel member that the city would hold a press conference the next morning to officially unveil their new pick. She noted that the monthly panel meeting would be her last as chancellor.

“She was very positive about the selection,” said one panel member who spoke with her about Carvalho.

The meeting eventually drew so many angry lawmakers and parents that some panel members wondered whether the timing of the city’s announcement of Carvalho was meant to crowd out coverage of the closures. “The thought crossed my mind,” said one panel member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, back in Miami, education insiders were also pulling a late night — and many thought they were hours away from seeing their schools chief walk away.

Miami community activist Tangela Sears said she stayed up speaking with the superintendent and bombarding his phone with texts.

At that point, “I think Alberto was heading to New York,” said Sears, an outspoken advocate against gun violence in Miami, a cause for which Carvalho has been an outspoken ally. “I think he was battling the decision, but I think he was heading to New York.”

First thing Thursday morning, Carvalho was flanked by television cameras at iPreparatory Academy, the downtown Miami school where he serves as principal. He declined to say anything about New York City, instead railing against the idea of arming Florida teachers.

When the Miami-Dade school board came together at 10 a.m. Thursday, desperate Miamians lavished the superintendent with praise and begged him to stay put. The show of support dragged on for hours while Carvalho sat silently, at times tearing up, touching his heart, and wrapping one student up in a hug on the dais. School board members passed a symbolic, and unanimous, vote of confidence in the superintendent.

It took four hours, two breaks, and a soaring speech before Carvalho revealed his final decision.

“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. He would stay.

To observers in Miami, the outpouring of support is what finally pushed Carvalho to call de Blasio during the meeting, with a surprising message: thanks, but no thanks.

“If he had a commitment, either way, I think at that moment he felt something inside. ‘This is what I have to do for these kids,’” said school board member Larry Feldman.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.