The Broward County school board rejected a proposal from its newest member to fire Superintendent Robert Runcie, voting 6-3 against ending his contract after community members spoke for four hours in overwhelming support of his leadership.
School board member Lori Alhadeff failed to convince a majority of her colleagues that Runcie had willfully neglected his duty as superintendent and therefore should be fired more than four years before the end of his contract. Alhadeff’s 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was one of 17 people murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year.
“Lives should have been saved that day,” Alhadeff said. "The tragedy was the symptom, which uncovered and highlighted the many failures within our system of Broward County Public Schools.”
Alhadeff blamed those “failures” on Runcie. She pointed to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent decision to request a statewide grand jury to scrutinize Broward's and other school districts’ compliance with school safety requirements.
”We are not under a grand jury investigation because things are running so smoothly,” Alhadeff said.
Runcie has faced intense criticism from parents in Parkland and Coral Springs in particular, while community leaders in the rest of Broward County have largely defended him.
His supporters had a strong presence at the school board headquarters in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday.
While hundreds of people initially indicated an interest in addressing the school board — chair Heather Brinkworth told her colleagues to expect as many as 1,000 speakers — many ended up leaving or chose not to speak. Nearly 100 people ultimately took turns at the podium for three minutes each. Only a handful of people asked board members to fire Runcie.
Black, Latino and LGBTQ leaders — including principals, pastors and heads of advocacy groups — said Runcie has been an inclusive superintendent, dedicated to supporting all students and employees. Business executives also lauded Runcie, arguing that he has been a standout leader in the district’s otherwise dysfunctional history. District administrators and school employees said he has been present and attentive to students.
“My boss’ boss’ boss, Mr. Runcie, comes to my school more times than I count. He gives the children a chance at believing that they can do something with their life,” said Joseph Balchunas, principal of Park Ridge Elementary School in Deerfield Beach.
"He comes from humble backgrounds. He comes from a shack in Jamaica. He shows the children that, and says, ‘You can be something. You can go to Harvard, and they will pay for it,’” Balchunas said. "And my children believe that they have a chance at life because of his commitment.”
Henry Green said he represents a congregation of 1,200 people as pastor of Mt. Hermon AME Church in Fort Lauderdale, which he said was one of the oldest churches in Broward County. Green said his brother is a religious leader in South Carolina, where there was a mass shooting at a black church in 2015.
”We didn’t stop being the church because of the violence that struck our community,” he said, "and here in Broward County, we cannot stop being the school.”
Green, like several other speakers, said gun laws — not Runcie — are to blame for what happened in Parkland.
Several people also called attention to the disparate and inequitable responses to murders of children in predominantly white, affluent communities like Parkland versus the deaths of children in impoverished communities of color.
"I hate to say it, but many of us are ignoring the real facts: This is about privilege,” said Darryl Holsendolph, an officer of a youth mentoring organization called 100 Black Men of South Florida and first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP.
"We know the loss of a child is extremely difficult, and there’s enough blame to go around. … Parkland is not the only community that has to deal with the loss of children. It happens in the urban core almost weekly,” Holsendolph said. “But never have we called upon the firing of the mayor, the police chief, the county commissioners, let alone the superintendent.”
Holsendolph asked the board not to ignore the progress Runcie has made in building trust between the school district and communities of color and helping narrow the achievement gap among black and white students.
After some speeches in support of Runcie, cheering could be heard from the overflow rooms where people were watching the meeting on televisions.
The final speaker was his wife, Diana Runcie. She said he loves and protects the students of Broward County like they’re his own.
On Feb. 14, 2018, Robert Runcie "came home crying,” Diana said. “He said, 'Diana, I can’t believe I lost my babies.’ And he was not talking about the three we birthed together.”
Diana Runcie's three minutes ran out, and several people in the audience who had not yet spoken raised their hands to yield their time to her.
She concluded, looking toward her husband and the board members sitting on the dais: “You have a diamond in that seat, and it’s yours to lose.”
Max Schachter was one of the few people who argued in favor of firing Runcie. Schachter's son Alex was killed in the shooting. He said the school district's academic performance has been overstated. He also railed against the district’s delays in completing safety upgrades that were promised with the 2014 passage of an $800 million bond referendum.
"We need new leadership in this district,” he said. "Our kids are not secure, and they're not learning.”
Ultimately, Robin Bartleman and Nora Rupert joined Alhadeff in voting against Runcie.
Brinkworth, the chair, said Runcie hasn’t shown “willful neglect,” which would be needed to terminate his contract. But she sees some problems with his leadership and commented she wants to do more regular performance evaluations in the future.
After the vote, Runcie addressed the board. He said the district has a responsibility to be a model for the nation in enhancing school safety.
"Now is the time for our entire community to come together, for us to work together, and to show this state, and to show this nation, how a community comes together and rebounds and responds form a horrific tragedy,” he said.