‘The animosity, the anger’: The many clashes that erupted at Broward’s School Board meeting

Parents, community members and teachers were brimming with frustration at Broward’s School Board meeting Tuesday — in a discussion that grew so heated, some people used their speaking time to comment on the contentiousness itself.

“At this meeting, the animosity, the anger, the nastiness has never before — I’ve never seen anything like it,” said speaker Mary McLaughlin.

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The first of two proposed agenda items to part ways with Superintendent Vickie Cartwright became a platform for all to air grievances at those they deemed counter to their stance, from parental-rights advocates to critics of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education policies to those who want to keep politics out of it entirely.

“We are not here about politics, we are here about our children and our community,” Gloria Lewis, a former commissioner of Lauderdale Lakes, sought to remind people in her comment supporting Cartwright’s termination.

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Political or not, the growing fragmentation of the public was difficult to ignore Tuesday, reflected in the fragmentation of the School Board itself.

Outside the building, a smattering of parental-rights advocates carried signs reading “Kids First, Politics Last” and “Foganholi, Alston, Fam,” to refer to the more right-leaning contingent of the School Board: the two DeSantis appointees, Daniel Foganholi and Torey Alston, and School Board member Brenda Fam.

“I emailed you about your newest program, No Place for Hate,” said Deirdre Ruth, addressing Cartwright. “There’s things that violate HB 1557. … Did you look into it? … Did you know it’s teaching our children Critical Race Theory?”

Advocates of Fam and the DeSantis appointees sat across the aisle from a newly formed group protesting that same contingent, wearing whistles and T-shirts with the slogan “Truth Matters” and taking photos with board members Allen Zeman and Sarah Leonardi.

Public speakers from the group defended Cartwright while taking aim at certain School Board members. “Here board members sit and judge the Superintendent, but I think everyone’s behavior needs to be in the spotlight,” said Melissa Shiff, who wore a “Truth Matters” T-shirt.

She received multiple warnings to keep her comments relevant to the item before Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff cut her off.

Many of the speakers put politics aside altogether, brought together by their frustration with Cartwright and the state of Broward schools. “I don’t stand here as a political agent or as a showboat,” said Jacqui Luscombe, the chair of the ESE advisory council, which represents students with special needs. “2,619 students haven’t even been getting their speech services this year.”

Some speakers infused their remarks with personal attacks, including Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, a frequent critic of school district leadership, and Terry Scott, who also raised the issue of a lack of speech therapists. “If I have to give you credit for something, thank you for bringing everyone together,” Lynch-Walsh said, referring to the range of political factions present at the meeting.

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But the vitriol drew the concern of some. Another speaker wearing a “Truth Matters” shirt said that there is “no civility from the people coming up to this microphone” and that Cartwright was the only person to demonstrate civility at the meeting.

The animosity among the public extended to the board during its own discussion, as School Board members argued with Cartwright and among themselves.

“The truth really does matter,” said board member Allen Zeman, whose proposed item to terminate Cartwright generated much of the discussion. “I want to be clear that this is neither personal nor political.”

But Cartwright suggested that the backlash she had faced was just that.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Is this political?’” she said. “I hope not.”

Alston, who has long advocated for firing Cartwright, told her that his criticism was purely professional. She did not parse words in her response.

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“You say a lot of grandstanding words without substance,” she told him to audible surprise from people in the audience. “Please, no more of this public humiliation, please sir.”

Ultimately, the Broward School District agreed to sever ties Tuesday with Superintendent Vickie Cartwright, with her last day likely to be sometime within the month after an upcoming negotiation with Lori Alhadeff.

Board member Sarah Leonardi criticized both the superintendent and the board, then questioned whether the search for a new superintendent would be free from political influence. “I am very concerned about the behavior of this board, the inconsistency of this board and the message it’s sending,” she said. “The truth is, our strategic plan, our goals and guardrails, do not mean a whole lot. Instead we will evaluate the superintendent on the opinions of certain powerful individuals.”

Meanwhile, Alston sought to remind everyone that the School Board remains a united front.

“We’re a body of one,” he said. “It’s nine of us as one. … I respect this blended board. It’s a competent board, it’s a good board.”