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Former Broward school board member faces tough re-election bid after being removed by DeSantis

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Kate Payne / WLRN
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Former Broward County School Board Member Donna Korn hands off some of her campaign materials to volunteers from the Broward Teachers Union. Korn has kept the endorsement of the influential labor group, even after Gov. Ron DeSantis removed her from office.

Broward County voters have a big decision to make: should they re-elect former school board member Donna Korn even though she was removed from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis? If Korn wins, she could be removed a second time — handing DeSantis another appointee on the board for Florida's second-largest school district.

A key fact about Donna Korn is that she is no longer a member of the Broward County School Board. But voters wouldn’t necessarily know that, based on how she introduced herself on a recent day of door knocking in Hollywood.

“Hi! I'm your school board member for Broward County,” Korn told one resident who answered the door. “I was just stopping to say hi.”

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As she walked the neighborhood of apartment complexes and single family homes, she presented herself as the incumbent in the race.

“Do you happen to vote here in Broward?” Korn asked another resident. “Okay! So I'm your county-wide board member. I've been here for 11 years. I was a teacher here in Broward, have kids who are in schools now…”

What Korn was leaving out of these brief conversations is that DeSantis removed her from office in August, along with three of her colleagues on the Broward County School Board.

Of the residents who answered the door while WLRN was with Korn, none seemed to know who she was, which isn’t surprising for a local school board race.

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Kate Payne / WLRN
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Former Broward County School Board Member Donna Korn leaves campaign materials while knocking doors in Hollywood. On the day WLRN accompanied her, she presented herself as a current board member, despite having been removed from office.

Later, Korn pushed back against the idea that it’s misleading to withhold the fact she’s no longer on the board.

“What I've been saying is, I have served as your county-wide school board member for the last 11 years,” Korn said. “I don't think that's misleading because that is what I have done over the last 11 years.”

A statewide grand jury has accused Korn and her colleagues of incompetence and neglect of duty related to a massive school renovation project. DeSantis petitioned the grand jury to launch an investigation in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

At the time, DeSantis said he didn’t have the evidence to remove the board members — some of whom had just been reelected.

“I was not convinced that I had the authority — given the facts — to suspend,” DeSantis said. “But I also was mindful of the fact…having just had an election when these were all very live issues…may not be an appropriate use.”

Korn argues DeSantis used the grand jury as a political tool against the board.

“I think that it was very clear what the governor was expecting the grand jury to give him,” she said. “There was a political promise that was made and the grand jury allowed the governor to fulfill it.”

Of the four members who were removed, Korn is the only one running for reelection. She first got on the board in 2011, when she was appointed by then-Governor Rick Scott.

During her time on the board she’s advocated for career and technical education and JROTC programs — and she says she’s not done.

“My focus will singularly be on education — which by the way, it was before,” Korn said. “Even if there was something out there that was pending or hovering, it never impacted my ability and my willingness to take on the fight and to serve.”

One of those fights was over masks. Korn and her colleagues voted to mandate masks during a covid surge — in defiance of an executive order by DeSantis.

She was also a supporter of former Superintendent Robert Runcie — another target of the governor — who was the district’s leader at the time of the Parkland shooting and was ultimately charged with perjury as a result of the grand jury’s investigation. He has pleaded not guilty.

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Amy Beth Bennett / South Florida Sun Sentinel
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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.

Despite being removed from office, Korn has not lost the endorsement of the influential Broward Teachers Union, which represents more than 11,000 of the district’s 14,000 educators.

“We love Donna Korn and we know that if she was in office she would be working hard for the teachers,” said Katrina Whittaker, a BTU executive board member.

Whittaker teaches at Seagull Alternative High School and has been canvassing for months for Korn and other candidates endorsed by BTU.

“We can’t wait til Nov. 8 to show the governor that he made a mistake,” Whittaker said. “We’re going to show the governor that she is who we want for the school board.”

But other Broward residents say the risk of re-electing Korn is too great — DeSantis could remove her a second time and appoint a replacement of his choosing.

“He will totally remove her. You see his personality,” said Democratic activist Lourdes Diaz. “It’s his way or the highway.”

Diaz is a supporter of Allen Zeman, Korn’s competitor. At a local Democratic party event at a country club in Hollywood, Diaz said she sees no reason to take a chance on Korn.

“The fact that they did the investigation and they found misfeasance, malfeasance…it puts a cloud over her,” Diaz said. “[DeSantis] already suspended her. So I think he will probably turn around and remove her immediately.”

A spokesperson for the governor's office said there are "no announcements to make about this position at this time."

Diaz’ comment reflects a broader concern, especially among Democrats in Broward County, that the Republican governor is getting too involved in local schools.

“I think that's the challenge of our time,” said Allen Zeman. “We're a county with strong Democratic values. And we live in a state with a Republican legislature…and a Republican governor and they have the authority to take away local control.”

Zeman is a product of Broward County Public Schools and had a civilian career in the Navy, rising through the ranks to become director of Naval Training and Education.

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Courtesy: Allen Zeman for Broward County School Board
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Allen Zeman is a product of Broward County Public Schools and first-time candidate running to replace former board member Donna Korn. He says re-electing her would be risky: Gov. Ron DeSantis could remove her from office a second time.

His father spent his career in the district, which Zeman says gave him an inside view of the miracles of BCPS — and the disappointments.

“Elected officials in our democracy are 100% accountable, not just for their own decisions, but for what the system produces. I believe that with all my heart.” he said. “On the school board, I want to be held accountable for getting away from being a B-graded school district.”

Zeman is a first-time candidate but has been a prodigious fundraiser and came just one point behind Korn in the August primaries. No candidate won an outright majority, forcing a runoff.

Zeman says Korn’s candidacy is a distraction from other issues the district is facing — mental health, unfinished learning and school safety. He’s been a critic of DeSantis’ education agenda and says there’s too much at stake to take a risk on Korn.

“We just don't need any more drama. We need to focus on those wonderful students. We need more miracles. We need to be efficient and effective with the money that we have,” Zeman said. “And we have to go to Tallahassee and to Washington and fight for public education. It is at risk.”

By now, voters have had plenty of time to consider the allegations against Korn — unlike during the August primaries. The grand jury report was released just days before the Aug. 23 election, at which point more than 100,000 Broward residents had already voted.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter