The confetti wafted onto his impossibly square shoulders. The Nashville audience stood and roared. Then a medal on a royal-blue ribbon was draped around Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho's neck. Last month, after more than five years of agonizingly hard work, the self-proclaimed son of "pretty dramatic poverty" who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with no electricity or running water was named the nation's school superintendent of the year.
"If we can crack the code to student achievement in Miami, [which is] so poor, so diverse," said Carvalho, still wearing the medal beneath his tailored sport coat after the event, "it is a solution for the rest of the nation."
Problem is, his "solution" is under attack. Parents and alumni representing predominantly African-American schools in the urban core claim Carvalho has betrayed them and ignored their interests. A letter sent last week by angry, frustrated members of Inner City Alumni for Responsible Education (ICARE), an umbrella group representing alumni associations from seven of Miami-Dade County's largest inner-city high schools, accuses Carvalho of being "a slick operator" and showing "neglect and apathy" for black schools while caving to concerns from other ethnic groups.
"All we get from the superintendent is broken promise after broken promise," says Larry Williams, president of Miami Northwestern High's alumni association and a 1974 grad. "Our schools have the worst technology, the buildings are outdated, and he just pushes us to the back burner and then lies about it."
The detailed, six-page letter of protest comes at an inopportune time for Carvalho. This past weekend, he visited Northwestern for a celebration of the school's academic achievements. According to the Miami Herald, he's rumored to be pondering "leaving the district for a job with a higher profile." And he is likely to meet soon with President Obama to celebrate his superintendent-of-the-year honor.
After I sent the alumni letter to Carvalho's office last week, his chief of staff, Milagros Fornell, responded with an even more exhaustive missive that described the school department's efforts to distribute money fairly, increase hiring of African-Americans, and work with businesses in the community. "Over the past 5.5 years, we believe we have come together as a community," she wrote, following with a favorite Carvalho-ism. "No longer an uneasy collection of factions, we are one Miami."
Carvalho, a handsome, charismatic man who speaks with a slight accent from his childhood in Portugal, took the helm at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest district, in July 2008. He replaced Rudy Crew, a baby-faced former head of New York City public schools -- whom the Miami-Dade school board fired.
Among Carvalho's first actions was a public meeting with the black community at the cavernous Caleb Center. Attendees were skeptical. After all, Crew, who is African-American, was fired from the job soon after becoming Florida's first national superintendent of the year. (Carvalho is, coincidentally, the second.) Members of the community feared they would be forgotten.
But according to William "DC" Clark, president of Miami Central's alumni association and author of the protest letter, Carvalho made a "stirring speech" and then walked into a circle of men. "If you walk with me, if you get involved," the superintendent said, "I promise you we can make the necessary changes in this community [to] make us proud."
So Clark and the other leaders of the alumni associations -- Edison, Booker T. Washington, Norland, Jackson, Northwestern, and Carol City -- began holding meetings with Carvalho in his downtown Miami office. They asked for more hiring of black administrators. And they demanded that more federal money meant for poor students be directed toward the institutions the leaders represented. Clark says they met ten times. Others say the number of meetings was more like two dozen.
"I was one of his biggest proponents, and I consider him a friend," says Clark, a retired firefighter whose two daughters and grandson also attended Central. "But he has betrayed the community. He's playing a shell game with our kids' lives."
Clark and the others demanded a branding office so their schools could make money off the names, such as Central and Northwestern, which have regularly been rated among the nation's top football teams and have produced large numbers of professional players. The alumni association chiefs also asked for upgrading of the schools' stadiums, which draw tens of thousands of spectators for big games.
But, says Clark's letter, "Mr. Carvalho said he would deal with the issue some three years ago. It was never done."
It is hard to deny that Carvalho -- despite a sometimes tendentious school board -- has achieved much during his six-year tenure. He cut $2 billion from the schools budget and this year gained long-awaited raises for teachers. Test scores are up. Even Northwestern went from a D to an A school. And in 2012, through sheer force of will, he persuaded county voters to approve a $1.2 billion referendum for school construction.
That same year, the county won the much-coveted Broad Prize as the nation's most improved urban school district. A U.S. News & World Report story about the award noted that graduation rates among black and Hispanic students had climbed 14 percent between 2006 and 2009 -- the greatest increase of any urban district.
But as the alumni critics note, much of that increase came during Crew's tenure. "We can't argue with the fact that the grades have improved under the superintendent's watch," Northwestern's Larry Williams says. "Part of that is what Rudy Crew set in place. Carvalho has made a lot of promises, but he has fallen short on his own commitments to our community."
One of the most contentious areas of debate is the hiring of black contractors. Though a recent study showed the school board spends 13 percent of its budget on black contractors, the critics contend the county cooked the books by choosing years in which black participation was the highest and including only new construction.
The county responds that bureaucrats have "done a remarkable job in increasing the participation of just such firms" and notes that almost 100 African-American small businesses have been certified to do county work.
One of those contractors is Lawrence Cook, a 1977 Edison High graduate whose construction company was recently certified after more than a year of submitting applications. He recently won a $200,000 contract to perform various repairs. "I have heard the complaints of people the last couple years, and it's a fact that not a lot of business goes to the [black] community," he says, adding that he won the work after "a very lengthy process. Very tedious. If I wasn't a very patient guy, I would have given up."
A few contracts aren't enough for the critics -- and they are right to be dissatisfied. Carvalho has been described repeatedly by the national media as a savior. Yet gains at some schools -- such as Miami Central, where a miracle-worker principal was hired and then soon left -- have been fleeting in the past few years.
Carvalho and the school board should quickly address ICARE's concerns. And they should be straight in doing so.
"The superintendent has continued to piss on our heads and try to convince us it is raining," Clark says. "But some of us know piss when we see it and smell it. [Carvalho's] failure to address these issues is a total disgrace."