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Education

'My First Priority Is Removing Runcie,' Says Parkland Victim's Father, Now On Board Of Education

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Associated Press
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Andrew Pollack, shown here at the Capitol in Tallahassee last year, is the newest member of the state Board of Education. His daughter, Meadow, was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The newest member of the powerful state board that regulates education in Florida is singularly focused on ousting the superintendent of the state's second-largest school district.

Less than 48 hours before leaving office, then-Gov. Rick Scott tapped Andrew Pollack — whose daughter, Meadow, was killed in the Parkland school shooting — for the State Board of Education. Superintendents often come before the body, which oversees K-12 education and community colleges statewide: sometimes to advocate for their legislative budget priorities, sometimes to seek approval for their strategies to turn around underperforming schools, at times to defend their denials of charter schools hoping to open in their districts.

If he and  Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie face each other at a board meeting, it could be awkward. Pollack is hoping to oust Runcie before that happens. He already attended his first meeting — in Pensacola earlier this week.

"He's going to deal with me. You know what I mean? I'm not — Mr. Pollack's not going anywhere. You know, like my daughter — she's stuck in that hole over there in the ground, and I'm never going to forget it," Pollack said one morning this week while sipping coffee at the home he shares with his wife, Julie, and their Belgian Malinois puppy, Sonny. At the moment, that home is a camper that sits atop his truck, parked at a Broward County campground. He recently sold his house in Coral Springs and isn't sure where he'll be living as soon as next month.

Pollack argues that as a board member he could treat Runcie fairly. But he blames the superintendent for his 18-year-old daughter's murder.

"My first priority is removing Runcie … from his superintendent job," Pollack continued. "One way or another — I'll get to Robert Runcie."

A spokeswoman for Runcie provided a statement in response to Pollack's comments. The superintendent said he thinks about the families of the 17 victims every day, and he knows their pain and loss is still fresh.

"At this moment, the community needs stability in school district leadership, increased resources and support. That is what our school board members, our entire district and I are focused on providing," he said in the statement.

Runcie continued: "The trajectory of progress is strong and we’re moving in the right direction. The school board, my leadership team and I are 100 percent committed to keeping the momentum going."

Scott announced his pick of Pollack for the Board of Education — along with nearly 80 other appointees to various regulatory bodies — in the waning days of his governorship. New Gov. Ron DeSantis has called them "lame duck" choices, and he's expected to reject some or all of them before they get to the state Senate for confirmation.

So it's still not clear if Pollack's appointment will stick. But if you ask him — he's not worried.

"I'm pretty sure I'm going to be OK with Governor DeSantis," Pollack said, adding that the two are "friendly."

Pollack supported DeSantis' gubernatorial campaign — as well as Scott's successful bid for the U.S. Senate — and he attended the new governor's inauguration in Tallahassee on Jan. 8. A few days later, Pollack was at DeSantis' side when the chief executive suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel over his agency's mistakes in responding to the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"I know [DeSantis] is going to be pulling a bunch of those appointments. But even if he pulls mine, he'll reappoint me," Pollack said, claiming the governor told him so directly. (A spokesman for DeSantis did not return a request for comment on this article.)

In a wide-ranging interview with WLRN, Pollack outlined how he hopes to influence education policy in Florida, explained where he stands on controversial issues related to schools, and speculated about where he might call home next  — maybe not Florida.

Here are some highlights from the conversation:

The case against Robert Runcie: Pollack's primary indictment of Runcie is the fact that a staff member who was recommended to be fired for inappropriate behavior toward female students was the first to spot confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz at Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14 and failed to raise alarms.

Andrew Medina, who was then a coach and security guard, saw Cruz enter the campus through an open gate with a rifle bag. He did not confront Cruz or call a "code red," which would have warned others at the school that there was a potential emergency.

Later, it came out through the Sun-Sentinel's reporting that Medina had been accused of verbally sexually harassing Pollack's daughter, Meadow, and another student a year before the shooting. A school district committee investigated and recommended that Medina be fired, but a member of Runcie's administration saved his job — putting him at the school gate that day.

"That's a reflection on Robert Runcie," Pollack said. "When you're a leader, you accept responsibility for the people that work under you.

"So that's why I tell people I'm not going to be done until I get rid of this Robert Runcie — and he knows it," he continued. "You know, I'm not a pushover. My daughter was murdered on that third floor, and he's responsible, and I'm going to make him pay. … I'm going to hold him to it."

Student discipline and the PROMISE program: Pollack is convinced Runcie's so-called "PROMISE" program contributed to his daughter's death.

"[Runcie's] intentions were well-meant," Pollack said, "but by doing this social experiment, it cost my daughter her life."

The program offers students who commit certain misdemeanor crimes at school alternatives to arrest, like counseling or substance abuse. It came under scrutiny following the shooting, in part because Runcie initially stated falsely that Cruz had "no connection" to the program. WLRN's reporting revealed he was, in fact, referred to PROMISE after vandalizing a bathroom at Westglades Middle School in 2013, but it appears he never completed the program.

Further, the Sun-Sentinel reported that the district had provided misleading data about the success of the PROMISE program, only counting students as re-offenders if they committed another eligible infraction in the same school year. The next year, they start fresh.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, a state panel tasked with investigating the shooting, concluded that Cruz's relationship to the PROMISE program had no bearing on his later crimes. But Pollack and others have argued the program encourages leniency in school discipline, letting students get away with dangerous behavior.

The Obama administration praised PROMISE as a model for tackling the school-to-prison pipeline and encouraged other school districts to enact similar policies. But after Parkland, with Pollack's input, President Donald Trump formed a school safety commission that ultimately rescinded that guidance.

That was "the most important recommendation" from Trump's group, Pollack argued.

Pollack said he'd like to let law enforcement decide how to discipline students when they commit crimes at school.

"I don't want to see kids have a record if they commit a crime, you know, just by being young and immature," he said.

He suggested: "Introduce them to the judicial system. Some kids need it. And you give them, like, one chance with some good counseling. And then, if the kids are good kids, when they turn 18, you give them a clean slate. Not like [Runcie's] program — they give them multiple chances while they're minors, and it sends them out into the real world without having learned what accountability is."

Teacher tenure: Pollack said the Broward County teachers he has spoken to also dislike PROMISE, but they're afraid to say so because they could be fired at any time.

Pollack's ally Rick Scott campaigned for governor on eliminating teacher tenure and succeeded shortly after he took office in 2011. Asked if Pollack would like to see that reversed, he said: "Without really looking into all of it, I know it doesn't work. They have a one-year contract, and … it's not really job security."

Teachers' unions: Pollack argues teachers need to "stand up" against unions because they "don't have their best interest at hand." He pointed to the Broward Teachers Union's decision to back school board incumbents during the August elections, rather than supporting their challengers. He was motivated to overhaul the board because of mistakes leading up to and following the shooting.

School safety: Pollack said he hopes the Board of Education will enforce school districts' implementation of safety recommendations from both the federal government and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. If not, he wants to "penalize them somehow." Pollack and other members of DeSantis' transition team discussed such options as withholding state funding from school districts, tying compliance with school safety laws into schools' A-to-F grades or even threatening school officials with criminal charges.

"In Broward, at ground zero where 17 people were murdered, there's no sense of urgency with Superintendent Runcie," Pollack said. "So there's got to be ways that … the Board of Education [can] enforce those recommendations."

The "Guardian" program and arming teachers: Pollack went to Polk County to observe the first round of training for "Guardians," school staff members designated to carry guns. He was impressed.

"I was very confident by the end, by graduation day, that [the Guardians] would be an asset to any school," he said.

Lawmakers are likely to consider expanding the program this year to allow some teachers to carry guns, as well. Pollack said he's for it.

"I don't care who has the gun that's going to save my kid," Pollack said. "I know what my daughter was praying for on that third floor — for someone to come and help her."

Charter schools: Pollack said privately run charter schools give parents other options if they don't want to send their children to traditional public schools, which he believes makes sense in Broward County.

"Why would anyone in Broward want to send their kid out to a public school?" he said. "To deal with a superintendent like Runcie?"

He added that the nonprofit he founded in his late daughter's honor has worked with charter schools on a program called "Class Watch," in which parents volunteer to monitor a campus during the start and end of the school day. Some charter schools ask parents to do volunteer hours as a condition of their children's attendance.

"I like parent involvement," he said. "It's just an extra set of eyes at the school."

Vouchers: Pollack said one of the primary reasons he supported DeSantis' campaign for governor was because the Republican candidate pledged to expand vouchers, private-school scholarships that are funded with public money or through tax credits.

In particular, he said he likes vouchers because the temple he belongs to in Coral Springs operates a Jewish school, called a Yeshiva, and students there receive the scholarships.

Why the state Board of Education?: Pollack was an original member of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, but he resigned because he had a conflict of interest: he was suing a behavioral health provider that treated Cruz. The commission examined the provider's work as part of its investigation.

Also, Pollack opted against running for a seat representing Parkland and Coral Springs in the state House of Representatives that's being vacated by Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz. He said he hoped to do bigger things than spend his time at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

On the Board of Education, he thinks he could do more — and he wouldn't have to run in an election.

In fact, he's not sure if he'll even stay in Florida. If Pollack moves out of state, he would likely have to give up his seat on the board, since state law requires members to be Florida residents.

"I don't know where I'll be living for the month of February right now," Pollack said.

His wife is from California, "but I couldn't bear to have a California address," he said, because of his distaste for Democratic politics.

"Oregon looks nice. Parts of Oregon are very red. I could fit in there," Pollack said. "We're looking right now."