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Grand jury casts shadow over Broward school board elections

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Courtesy of Broward County Public Schools
Superintendent Vickie Cartwright (behind the podium) talks about the upcoming school district referendum during a press conference July 26, along with some board members, Broward teacher union leaders and district staffers.

There’s a shadow hanging over voters as they go to the polls to decide who should be on the Broward County School Board: the grand jury that investigated the district after the 2018 Parkland shooting wants some board members removed from office.

But the public doesn’t know why — because the courts still haven’t released the report. Some board members on the ballot this month could be implicated.

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Back in February of 2019, one year after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Gov. Ron DeSantis gathered with family members of the victims inside the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale to make an announcement. He had petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to seat a statewide grand jury to investigate what led to the massacre and what could have prevented it.

“To look into not only the Marjory Stoneman Douglas incident, but how this school district here and other school districts have handled money for security, have handled all of these issues that impact the safety of our schools,” DeSantis said.

Over time, the investigation expanded to include the mishandling of an $800 million school reconstruction bond in Broward too.

Already, the findings have been significant: then-Superintendent Robert Runcie and two other school officials were indicted based on the investigation. Runcie has pleaded not guilty to a perjury charge.

In June, a court filing revealed the grand jury wants DeSantis to remove some school board members from office — but it’s not clear who or why. Five of the nine members were on the board when the shooting happened.

It’s been more than a year since the grand jury finished its work in April 2021, but the public still doesn't know what’s in the report.

That’s in part because individuals named in the investigation have been trying to keep it confidential — including some school board members, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The release has been delayed as appeals play out from those trying to quash the report. It's not clear when it could ultimately be made public.

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Amy Beth Bennett
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South Florida Sun Sentinel
Broward County school board member Donna Korn raises her hand during a school board meeting on March 5, 2019. Then-Superintendent Robert Runcie sits to her left. Korn is now running for re-election even as a grand jury report investigating the school board remains secret.

“The shadow that this investigation has cast over the school district is large,” said board member Sarah Leonardi, who took office in November 2020, a few months before the grand jury wrapped up.

“I'm not going to pass judgment on my colleagues,” Leonardi said. “I will say, I do think it is imperative that the public is able to view the report. But everyone's entitled to the legal process and due process.”

School board member Debbi Hixon was elected after her husband Chris was murdered at Stoneman Douglas. She says voters deserve to know what’s in the report before they go to the polls.

“So everyone can have a chance to read through it, see what it says,” Hixon said. “They won't feel that there are secrets or that there's something that they don't know.”

With the August election underway, there’s a lot at stake — and not just for individual board members.

Broward County Public Schools is asking voters to renew a property tax that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for school safety, mental health and teacher pay. Hixon says she hopes the report will help clear the air — and ultimately rebuild public trust.

“I think there's a lot of mistrust in our county about money that's being used by the school district,” Hixon said. “So I think having the grand jury report come out and people seeing if there are issues or not will help with that transparency.”

But because the courts still haven’t released the grand jury report, voters are making their decisions now —without knowing the full scope of potential wrongdoing.

Board member Donna Korn has faced questions about this on the campaign trail. She’s one of two board members running for reelection who were on the board in 2018 — and she’s the only one on the ballot who had been a supporter of Robert Runcie.

Korn declined an interview request from WLRN and would not say whether she’s trying to keep the report confidential.

Two other current board members, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson, also voted to keep Runcie on the job in the wake of the shooting but before his indictment. They opted to retire rather than run for reelection this cycle. Board member Nora Rupert, who is running for reelection, had been a vocal critic of Runcie.

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Joe Raedle
/
Getty Images
Broward school board member Lori Alhadeff was elected after her daughter Alyssa was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. She says she's open to seeing some of her colleagues removed from office, depending on the findings of a statewide grand jury.

Board member Lori Alhadeff told WLRN she’s open to seeing some of her colleagues removed from office, depending on the grand jury's findings. Alhadeff was elected to the board after her daughter Alyssa was murdered at MSD.

“I support holding people accountable,” Alhadeff said. “If the information comes out that certain school board members should be removed to hold them accountable, then I think that's important.”

Regardless of what the grand jury recommends, the Florida Constitution grants the governor the power to remove elected officials from office — even if they haven’t committed a crime.

“The governor has not been shy about removing other people in all different kinds of positions,” said Susan MacManus, professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida.

“Rare is a governor unwilling to remove someone who …obviously needs to be removed under the law,” MacManus added.

Still, board member Leonardi says she’s worried about the prospect of the governor removing someone after they’ve just been reelected by the voters.

“If people are removed after an election has taken place and then the governor gets to appoint people to our board, it really is counterintuitive to the will of the voters, right?” she said.

Leonardi says she wants the grand jury report released soon so voters can make up their own minds. But even if it was released immediately, it would be too late for the more than 112,000 Broward County residents who have already voted.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter