On Location Interviews with Superintendents
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho
Miami-Fla.—Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): We have come to Florida to find out some of the secrets of your success. We hope it can serve as a paradigm for replication in other parts of the country. What are some of the challenges that you have faced here in the fourth-largest school district in the nation.
Mr. Alberto Carvalho (AC): Two-and-a-half years ago when I was appointed superintendent, we were a system that was basically bankrupt, with a total fund reserve of less than $4 million to protect a $5.5 billion entity. We were a system whose credit rating, according to the New York agencies, was unstable. And, we were a district also plagued by a significant number of under-performing schools, primarily schools in the urban core of the city, with a threat from the department of education of a permanent shutdown of no less than nine schools because of multiple years of failing grades. Perhaps equally significant, the discord between staff, superintendent and board, was significant. Teachers had gone without a pay increase or contract for two years. So that was the dramatic, very stark backdrop against which we began this work. Over the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve completely reversed every single challenge. We began [by] approaching a zero-based, moral-values-based budget, which is sort of a novel concept. We identified what our non-negotiable principles were, and we imposed those principles on the budget discussion. We turned that dramatic budget condition from near-deficit, near-bankruptcy, into one where our reserves grew by 3,000 percent.
PR: How did you do that?
AC: Well, zero-based budgeting, dramatic reductions to administrative spending. We are the lowest per-people administrative spending district in the entire state. We cut staff. So, from two years ago to where we stand today, we have 6,000 fewer employees in the school system.
PR: Administration or teaching?
AC: Not teaching. Not a single teacher has been fired for economic reasons. We certainly have moved in the direction of rectifying and addressing teacher-quality issues, but not for economic reasons. Administration is down now by 52 percent. We took our overall highest-paid administrative salary expenditures and reduced it by 45 percent over these years. During that time, we were able to negotiate every single contract. Some of it required some short-term sacrifice, so I did ask the employees to lend the district two days, which I paid back a year later; when I paid them back, I gave them the first salary increase that they had received in two years. We were successful in landing the $700 million in Race to the Top funding.
As far as health care is concerned, as the national debate on health care was inundating the airwaves, I made a declaration that we would not spend an additional dollar on health care expenditures. Now, that was important because second only to payroll, health care is the biggest liability any district has. So I fired for convenience the previous health care provider, we self-insured, and we were able to reduce the expenditures by $72 million in one single year. We basically became our own insurance company. We re-designed the plan and we still maintained an absolutely free option for all employees. I negotiated directly with large doctor conglomerates, medical conglomerates and hospital providers. So we now cut the deal directly with them.
PR: What did you do about the question of tenure? Did you have any conflicts with the union and tenure?
AC: We are at the table right now to address the requirements in Race to the Top, so we are deep in conversations regarding tenure, merit pay, performance pay and a new way of evaluating teachers tied to student achievement, but recognizing the external factors in the classroom that contribute to or at least impact student achievement. Remember the state had us on warning that they would shut down nine schools. Today, every single one of those schools [has] moved up dramatically. In the state of Florida, schools are graded with letter grades, and those schools were all F’s. Every single one of those schools moved — some from F to A in one single year, from F to C, and the two lowest-performing high schools in the country were here in Miami, Central and Edison Senior High Schools. They have been able to earn their first C in the history of those schools. Graduation rates in some of these schools improved by as much as 20 percent in one single year, and for the first time ever, our 10th-grade students surpassed overall state performance!
And for the first time ever Miami-Dade was ranked the highest performing urban district in America for reading and math! Science [scores] just came out this week, and the one conclusion, as the state’s performance was stagnant, as the national performance in science was stagnant, the one positive point of light was that Hispanic student achievement in Miami-Dade soared. And in fact we lifted the entire state. So, at a time when we lost $839 million [in the budget], we were able to force student achievement to soar to unparalleled levels, increase graduation rates, we were able to stabilize our finances, we were able to impose true health-care reform locally without federal interference, and we were able to put Miami-Dade on the map, saving every one of those nine schools from closure because of performance. And we are now at a particularly exciting time, because we are at the table negotiating with the union the non-negotiables of Race to the Top. So, it’s a good time for Miami-Dade, to say the least. #