With Florida school board, a warning

Jonah Wexler, Editor-in-Chief

Broward County Public Schools, the public school district in south Florida where I grew up and was educated in, is no stranger to controversy. In just the last five years, conflict over school security, ethnic studies and management of COVID-19 has generated massive uproar, division and discontent over every layer of education policy in the district. Last year, as the tension crested, Broward’s longtime Superintendent Robert Runcie was indicted for corruption and removed from office, while vultures were circling several elected school board members.

After Runcie was removed, I feared the worst, worrying that his replacement would be a school security hawk elevated in the wake of the district’s 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I was pleasantly surprised when the school board instead chose Vickie Cartwright, superintendent of schools in Oshkosh, WI, and former public school music teacher in Texas. To my parents, both music educators, and I, Cartwright was a breath of fresh air. She seemed removed from the political warfare that had long defined district politics and was genuinely interested in district programs that had long been neglected by political leadership from the district level to the top tiers of state government, especially our beleaguered music programs. Best of all, she contrasted with prior district leadership by being one of few local officials to stand up to Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis. When, at the height of the pandemic, DeSantis played political games with Broward teachers and schoolchildren, trying to overturn the district’s mask mandate, Cartwright did not waver. The mask mandate stayed. It was a relief to hear that the county had at least one leader who wasn’t willing to sacrifice the health of people like my parents who are involved in public schools. I thought that Cartwright had secured her place as Broward’s superintendent as long as she wanted the job, in part by how strongly she stood in contrast to our loathed governor.

I was wrong. On Monday, Nov. 14, Broward’s School Board, without warning or public notice, fired Cartwright. It was a close vote, five to four. Every single member of the Board who voted for Cartwright’s removal was recently appointed to their seat by DeSantis. Florida has an unusual law that allows the governor to appoint anyone of his choosing to local government vacancies across the state. DeSantis has used this power to an extreme degree, appointing county executive officer seats like supervisor of elections and sheriffs, county commissioners, and school board members. He’s particularly focused these appointments in counties that opposed him in his first election — diverse, working-class counties like Broward. This summer, DeSantis fired five board members, all of whom were allies of the ousted former superintendent Robert Runcie and were implicated in the corruption scandal that was his own downfall. DeSantis immediately appointed replacements. These individuals have no educational career experience; they are purely political allies of the far right and cronies of DeSantis. The official reason the DeSantis bloc gave for firing Cartwright was that she has overstayed her welcome as interim superintendent, but it’s clear that they are punishing Cartwright for opposing the conservative party line on COVID and the DeSantis agenda at large. With his action this summer, the governor had basically seized control of the most contested part of county government and civic life in the heartland of his opposition. In retrospect, DeSantis’ opponents in Broward should have seen this coming.

This is nothing new. Just over two years ago, I wrote in this paper about DeSantis’ cruel and oppressive anti-protester bill. Written and passed into law at the height of the uprising against police brutality and systemic racism in the summer of 2020, this law essentially criminalized large-scale organized protests in the state of Florida. I said then that coupled with the governor’s fervent support of voter suppression and COVID denialism, this was proof that DeSantis was a fascist opposed to democracy and self-determination, especially for marginalized people in South Florida. Now we can add his agenda of packing local governments with his allies to his list of crimes.

Now more than ever, the stakes of ensuring DeSantis faces defeat in some form or another are critical. Last week, DeSantis earned himself a landslide reelection victory. Turnout was down and voter suppression still runs rampant, but DeSantis is using his victory to further legitimize himself and his twisted agenda. Already, the conservative media circuit is touting him as a contender for president in 2024, and polls conducted in the last week have shown that he leads the pack for the 2024 Republican primary — even beating Trump. The prospect of President Ron DeSantis is legitimately horrifying. His time as governor has stoked anti-science, anti-worker, anti-queer and deeply racist attitudes that are irrevocably harming my state. His strategy of tearing apart and replacing the governments that oppose him is disturbingly effective. If applied to a national scale, I fear he will kneecap radical politicking on every level of government. Ron DeSantis is a fascist. He is poised on the precipice of incredible power. He must be defeated, no matter what.

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