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The 'fractious' school board politics awaiting Alberto Carvalho in L.A.'s school district

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho embraces members of his staff prior to announcing his departure for Los Angeles during a press conference at iPrep Academy in Miami on Thursday, Dec. 9.
Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho embraces members of his staff prior to announcing his departure for Los Angeles during a press conference at iPrep Academy in Miami on Thursday, Dec. 9.

A school board with ideological divisions over charter schools, the role of police, budget priorities and more: That's what Alberto Carvalho will need to manage in his next role, explained KPCC education reporter Kyle Stokes.

It was deja vu last Thursday when Alberto Carvalho announced he would be leaving his post as superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools to lead a bigger district.

In 2018, he backed out of a plan to become chancellor of New York City schools. This time, it looks like it’s going to stick.

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After more than a dozen years leading Miami-Dade schools, Carvalho will take on the top job at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school system in the country.

Kyle Stokes, who covers education for KPCC in Los Angeles, explained why the City of Angels wants to hire Carvalho — and what he’ll face when he gets there. He spoke with WLRN senior news editor Jessica Bakeman about the superintendent's shift to the west coast.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

STOKES: There were a couple of big boxes that Carvalho checks. One is his immigrant background, his relationship with and experience leading a school district by and for low-income students, immigrant students, which L.A. obviously has a large population of. His background as a classroom educator is another big point. But the third box is also long tenure. This has been an issue for this school district. Carvalho will be the fourth non-interim superintendent in Los Angeles in the last decade.

WLRN: And do you think that the different factors that contributed to the other superintendents not staying for very long — do you think they could be a problem for Carvalho?

The board politics are incredibly fractious. There's a lot of fighting over the charter schools-versus-teachers' union debate, divisions over what to do about school police in Los Angeles schools, divisions over how much funding to push into the highest-need schools. Navigating those politics and getting the school board on the same page has been a challenge for previous superintendents.

On the other hand, I also think that this is a challenge for L.A.’s school board — to prove that they can get on the same page with the superintendent. That’s why the unanimous vote to hire him is so interesting.

So, as you know, Carvalho flirted with leaving Miami for New York City in 2018 on live television. He decided against it, and it was dubbed “The Carvalho Show.” Do you think that debacle gave school board members in L.A. any pause?

Yeah, I talked to the vice president of our school board about that, and he said, of course, we did due diligence about that. They were concerned to an extent. Obviously, those concerns have been allayed.

But I do think it's important to point out a really important point of contrast between Los Angeles and New York. New York is a school system that is under mayoral control. The mayor appoints the school superintendent, the school chancellor there. Bill de Blasio would have essentially been having Alberto Carvalho running point for him and carrying his water on education matters. Whereas here in Los Angeles, the superintendent can be a little bit more of an independent actor, can chart a bit of his own course a little bit more.

Of course, he does work for the school board, just like in Miami, so the superintendent here has to at least bring the board along if there's a strategic vision that he or she wants to pursue.

What are the next steps here? I know that the school board voted unanimously to hire him. He's said that he plans to go, but does anything else have to happen to make it official?

So the school board has opened negotiations with Carvalho. The contract is not yet finalized. The plan is to vote on the contract on Tuesday. At least, that's what they said after they emerged from their closed-door meeting.

The question that I think is still being resolved is: When would Carvalho start here in Los Angeles? And the school board vice president says that he hopes that Carvalho could start before the end of the school year.

Bigger picture: We're talking about the end of this process. But tell me about the whole process of searching for a new superintendent. What challenges did the board face along the way, at a time when superintendents across the country have been leaving their jobs because of the stress of the pandemic? 

I know that there were some folks that Los Angeles was interested in who ended up going elsewhere, to other large urban school districts. There were a number that were vying for the same pool of people. Chicago hired a school superintendent during this time, as well. I would say that that was a prime challenge in this process. But I think it was also the board getting on the same page.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.