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After Parkland School Shooting, Runcie's Days As Broward Superintendent Were Numbered

Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie in a mask
Al Diaz/Miami Herald
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie looks on during a board meeting on Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The Broward County school board will begin hashing out the details of Superintendent Robert Runcie's exit during a meeting Thursday, following his announcement earlier this week that he would be willing to "step aside" from his position.

When Robert Runcie became superintendent of Broward County Public Schools in 2011, he said he would try to stay at least a decade.

Chief executives of large, urban school districts often leave after two or three years, and "you can't get anything done in that period of time," Runcie said during a school board meeting Tuesday.

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Runcie nearly made it to the 10-year mark but, as it turned out, his days as the leader of the nation's sixth-largest school district would be numbered after the biggest challenge — and tragedy — of his career: the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Loved ones of the Parkland victims demanded accountability for the mistakes made leading up to and following the shooting: A slow law enforcement response, including the refusal of some officers to engage with the shooter, potentially costing lives. A delayed video surveillance system. Inconsistently applied policies for securing the campus itself. The lack of successful interventions when confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz was still just a troubled student, threatening violence.

Hoping to give the families what they were asking for, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis empaneled a statewide grand jury to examine not only how the Broward district responded to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting but also how all school districts in Florida approach safety and security, including how they are spending millions of dollars in funding meant to harden schools.

"I've been asked to, potentially, suspend the superintendent," DeSantis said during a 2019 press conference held on the eve of the first anniversary of the shooting. "The problem is that I don't have the authority to do that for an official who is appointed.

"And so, the best tool that we have to bring accountability but also move forward in a better way is a petition that I filed today with the Florida Supreme Court for a statewide grand jury," DeSantis said, explicitly framing the investigation as an alternative to directly disciplining Runcie.

More than two years later, that "accountability" would come in the form of an indictment for felony perjury. According to state prosecutors, Runcie allegedly talked to witnesses in a different, criminal case in preparation for his grand jury testimony, and then lied about it. He has pleaded not guilty to the third-degree felony charge. The criminal case — in which he allegedly consulted witnesses — involves the district's former chief technology officer, who was charged with bid rigging.

"I cannot and will not sit idly by as our superintendent gets arrested, and information comes out that he contacted witnesses in a criminal case, then lied about it when asked, according to prosecutors," school board member Lori Alhadeff said during Tuesday's board meeting. Alhadeff was elected to the board just months after her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the Parkland shooting.

Alhadeff proposed that the school board terminate Runcie, a move she had made unsuccessfully two years earlier. Her colleagues, though, said they preferred a different path: a suspension with pay for Runcie and general counsel Barbara Myrick, also charged in the grand jury probe, while both took the time to defend themselves in court.

Some board members referred to the affair as a "distraction," and Runcie seemed to agree.

"I cannot and will not put myself above the needs of this district and our children," he said. "I love our kids too much to do that."

As they have in the past, Runcie's supporters rallied around him this week, with business and religious leaders and Black elected officials outlining his accomplishments: making education more equitable for Black children, strengthening the district's relationships with the business community and philanthropists and helping to eliminate F-rated schools.

Some called the grand jury probe political and racist. Runcie is Black.

"I wonder out loud if that would have been done to him in the way that it was done if he were a different color," one public speaker, who is also Black, said during Tuesday's board meeting.

Ultimately, the achievements Runcie is credited with could not eclipse the shooting and its aftermath, or the problematic $800 million bond approved by voters in 2014 for infrastructure projects, many of which are late and over budget.

After fighting for years, Runcie decided to go out on his own terms, stunning school board members as he addressed Alhadeff directly in an emotional speech Tuesday.

"I know you've been in enormous amounts of pain that none of us can ever imagine, and I guess I'm probably part of the source of that in some way," Runcie said. "And so, if it's going to give you peace, … I will step aside."

Myrick followed suit, also agreeing to leave her job. The school board meets Thursday to begin hashing out the details of Runcie and Myrick's departures. While some have characterized their offers to leave as resignations, the technical language around their exits has not yet been solidified.

One option for Runcie is a termination without cause, which would leave him with 20 weeks of severance pay, nearly $130,000, plus his accrued vacation and sick time.

"The Board will be asked to authorize the Chair, assisted by appropriate legal counsel, to meet with the Superintendent and General Counsel and their respective representatives to explore mutual agreements for separation," the district's communications office said in a media alert. "If and when tentative agreements are reached, they will then be brought to a public School Board Meeting for discussion and approval."

For Alhadeff, the move brings accountability but no peace.

"With Mr. Runcie stepping down, that is one step in that accountability for the loss of Alyssa," she told WLRN during an interview Wednesday. "That pain that I feel is so raw, so real, and I can't bring Alyssa back. And so, for me to have peace, I'd want to have Alyssa back."

Runcie offered a candid reflection during what looks like one of his final board meetings as superintendent.

"I've always tried to do this work in a way that would make my mom and dad proud: two people who had a third-grade education, immigrated to this country so that their kids could have a better life," said Runcie, who was born in Jamaica.

"They worked their butts off," he said. "My mom scrubbed toilets in homes. My dad was a construction laborer. And they did all they could to make sure we always had food on the table.

"It's really just that ethic of hard work that I try to bring to everything I do."

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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