Two parents of Parkland shooting victims have launched formidable campaigns for the Broward County school board, and their efforts to overhaul the leadership of the nation's sixth-largest school district could be seen as a referendum on its superintendent.
Five of the district's nine school board seats are on the Aug. 28 ballot. Currently, a majority of board members in Broward support superintendent Robert Runcie. But these elections could change that.
“Looking at our board of education and the way they are today, we need a change,” Parkland resident Joanie Mintz said before voting at the city’s rec center on Tuesday afternoon. “They need to get rid of Runcie, No. 1.”
Mintz and several other Parkland voters said they're supporting the two parents and expecting them to oust Runcie if elected.
Ryan Petty — who lost his daughter, Alaina, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 — is running for a county-wide seat on the board, challenging incumbent Runcie-supporter Donna Korn.
“I’m running so I can represent parents all over the district who deserve to have their children come home to them,” Petty said in May, after filing his candidacy papers for the race.
Also, Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shooting, is running for the school board district that includes Parkland. The school board member who currently holds that seat, Abby Freedman, decided not to seek re-election.
Freedman is supporting one of the other candidates in the race, Tennille Decoste. Decoste is a third Stoneman Douglas parent vying for a seat on the board; her daughter goes there, and her son is a recent graduate whose close friend, Joaquin Oliver, died in the shooting.
Neither Petty nor Alhadeff has explicitly called for Runcie's firing. But they and other parents of victims have been critical of what they've called a series of missteps and flip-flops since the shooting.
In April, the school board voted against arming staff. But members later reversed that decision in order to comply with a new post-Parkland law that requires a cop or armed guard on every campus.
Parents have pointed out the Miami-Dade district made it a priority to use only police officers, succeeding by partnering with local law enforcement agencies. On the other side of the spectrum was the rural Polk County school district, which quickly embraced the idea of hiring armed guards, and therefore had the new staff trained and in place for the first day of school. Broward was playing catch up.
Runcie also said he would install metal detectors at Stoneman Douglas and then reversed course. He hired a former Secret Service agent to conduct an independent investigation of the actions of educators during the shooting and then canceled it. He stressed repeatedly there was "no connection" between the shooter and a controversial disciplinary program called PROMISE, which turned out to be false, as first reported by WLRN.
And the board has gone after Sun Sentinel reporters for publishing the contents of a report that showed errors made by the district in dealing with the shooter when he was a student. The district redacted the report so poorly it was simple for anyone with a computer to read it.
Alhadeff did some last-minute campaigning at the Parkland rec center on Tuesday afternoon. She said voters want change, and that starts at the top. Alhadeff was wearing a necklace engraved with a picture of her and her daughter, and she said the campaign was to honor Alyssa's memory.
"I am going to — once I am elected to the school board — get in there to see what is actually going on and then hold people accountable," she said. "I will make my own judgment call as to whether Robert Runcie is still qualified to run Broward County schools."
Petty has gone so far as to call the district's leadership corrupt.
"Corruption that must be cleaned up, local leaders make life & death decisions," Petty tweeted on Aug. 18. "Their action or inaction can lead to tragedy. Painful lessons of #MSD."
Neither Korn's campaign nor Runcie's office immediately returned requests for comment on Tuesday.
On Aug. 15, the first day of school, Runcie responded to continued criticism from families of victims regarding his administration's handling of the shooting.
"It's an unspeakable situation that they're going through," he said. "They've got their own path that they'll have to find to get through this very difficult time."
LOCAL ELECTION GETS NATIONAL ATTENTION
Petty's race has become the nastiest.
His opponent, Korn, recently said at an event that last school year was an "amazing" year — which upset parents of the victims. A clip of Korn's gaffe was circulated by Petty supporters.
"Being an employee of the school district and a mother who has endured such tragedy, it was difficult to hear those words," April Schentrup said during a recent press conference in which parents pushed for an overhaul of district leadership. Schentrup is a district administrator and former principal whose daughter, Carmen, was killed in the shooting.
Korn and her supporters have said she was taken out of context; she was referring to how the district performed academically.
"This was in no way a comment on the state of security within our schools or to overlook the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas," Korn said in a statement circulated by fellow board member and Runcie supporter Rosalind Osgood.
"It was an accolade to the students, teachers and principals who work hard educating our children every day and inspiration for even greater success this year,” Korn said.
Also, Korn's campaign leaked to the Sun Sentinel that Petty had a history of tweets, mostly from many years ago, that were racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic — and even pro-gun. Petty has said some of the tweets were taken out of context, and some he regrets.
The political backdrop in the race is that Petty is a Republican running for countywide office in one of the bluest parts of Florida. He's been endorsed by Marco Rubio. He was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to sit on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is doing an independent investigation of the shooting.
Meanwhile, Korn has the support of more left-leaning groups, like the Broward Teachers Union. Volunteers for the union were at the polls on Tuesday, trying to convince voters to support her.
Black Democrats elected in Broward have also spoken out to support Runcie.
Broward's school board races have drawn national attention in the wake of the shooting. Petty and Alhadeff have both made enhancing school safety and security their top priorities, as well as improving accountability and transparency in the school district.
BROWARD GOES TO THE POLLS
The school board races were at the forefront of voters’ minds in Parkland on Tuesday. Some wore “MSD Strong” shirts to vote at a city recreation center two miles from Stoneman Douglas.
“We need some new blood,” said Martha Garvey, whose daughter and stepson are both seniors at Stoneman Douglas. Garvey has the words “never again” tattooed in cursive on her forearm. She and her 16-year-old daughter also got matching tattoos on their thighs with a heart, the date of the shooting and the number of people who died.
Garvey said she was voting for Alhadeff and Petty.
“They’re parents of children that they lost,” she said, “and they know first-hand, much better than I, how badly we need some more oomph” on the school board.
The two parents also have the support of Gina Pfingsten and her husband, Matt. They have five children — all but one in a Broward public school.
“We need a fresh start, so I’m not voting for incumbents,” Gina Pfingsten said before voting at the rec center Tuesday. “The school board needs to be completely wiped out and started fresh. The superintendent needs to go as well.”
Meanwhile, in Pembroke Pines, incumbent Ann Murray made the case for electing experienced candidates. She said the current members of the school board have helped the district progress academically.
Murray, who has been on the Broward school board since 2008, talked with voters at the South Regional/Broward College library Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s important that the things that we have accomplished over the past year continue," she said. "So, that’s why I’m asking everyone to vote for me. I’m not done yet.”
Here's more information about all of the candidates running for the Broward County school board, reported by the Sun Sentinel.
Also on Tuesday's ballot is a referendum for a property-tax increase that would raise money for hiring additional armed security guards and paying teachers.
Andrea Perdomo contributed reporting.
This story was updated at 6 p.m. to include new interviews with voters and candidates.