South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | September 7, 2022
A state Department of Education leader has asked Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright to sever ties with district employees whose “failed decisions on school safety” were highlighted in a recent statewide grand jury report.
The demand came Wednesday in a letter from Tim Hay, director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools. He met with Cartwright and other district officials a week ago to discuss the scathing findings of the grand jury report, which led Gov. Ron DeSantis to suspend four Broward School Board members.
“Before our collective work can truly and credibly ever demonstrate that Broward County Public Schools has seriously embraced safer schools for the district’s students and faculty, issues remain that require your immediate attention,” Hay wrote. “Specifically, we have found the district still has employed district officials from the previous administration who guided failed decisions on school safety.”
The Department of Education has no direct authority to tell Cartwright who should be fired, because she reports to the School Board. But that board is now made up of a majority of appointees from DeSantis, whose views usually align with the department. Still, the School Board rarely fires anyone immediately, as district policy calls for due process. That process could extend past November when most of DeSantis’s appointees will end their terms.
The grand jury report found that former Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie — who the panel indicted on a perjury charge — failed to properly manage an $800 million SMART bond for school safety and construction and frequently lied to the School Board and public. Runcie is now the interim leader for Chiefs for Change, a national advocacy group for superintendents.
The letter says those who should no longer work for the district include:
- Key members of the prior superintendent’s leadership team.
- Staff directly named in the grand jury report.
- Procurement staff associated with the SMART program.
“If such staff are continuously employed by Broward County Public Schools — individuals who clearly failed the public in substantially documented and repeated ways — such a lack of action by the district could only be perceived as the district’s tacit endorsement of past and future ineptitude,” Hay wrote.
Hay’s letter didn’t mention any specific administrators.
Current administrators mentioned negatively in the grand jury report include Jeff Moquin, chief of staff under both Runcie and Cartwright; Judith Marte, who resigned as chief financial officer under Runcie and was rehired by Cartwright as a deputy superintendent; and David Watkins, director of climate and diversity.
None of the three could be reached for comment Wednesday evening.broward-swgj-follow-up-letter-9-7-2022-final
“These remaining district officials have not taken ownership of their barefaced failures and continue to perpetuate an “it is what it is” philosophy that was identified in the Grand Jury report,” Hay’s letter said.
That quote refers to a portion of the grand jury report where Moquin is asked why the school district committed to completing more work than it had money to pay for in 2014, when officials were selling the public on the bond.
“When confronted with this unavoidable reality, District Chief of Staff Jeff Moquin summed the situation up succinctly by saying “[i]t is what it is,” the report said.
The report said Marte gave a misleading answer when she told the board there would be ‘’no additional tax burden” when the district took out loans for bond work.
“She means that the Board will not have to raise taxes or find extra money some other way in order to pay off” the debt, the report said. “Marte’s formulation, however, conveniently ignores the fact that the District must spend money from its Capital Millage-money that could have been used to fund other maintenance projects.”
The grand jury report blasted Watkins for a lack of candor.
“When he appeared before us, Watkins was remarkable for one thing: his utter inability to directly answer the most basic of questions,” the report said. “He dissembled, gave nonresponsive and obviously-rehearsed answers, and demonstrated that if he is representative of Runcie’s top administrators, the District is in dire straits indeed.”
While she is not named in the grand jury report, Mary Coker oversees the district’s procurement department, which Hay’s letter also targets. However, the grand jury report doesn’t blame the procurement department for the failures in the bond program. Coker was a key grand jury witness whose cooperation with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement led to the indictments of Runcie and former General Counsel Barbara Myrick. Reached late Wednesday, Coker declined to comment.