Broward School Board votes not to fire embattled superintendent | TribLIVE.com
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Broward School Board votes not to fire embattled superintendent

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Sun Sentinel
Broward County School District Superintendent Robert Runcie is shown at a school board meeting where a vote will be held to decide if he is retained as superintendent in the Kathleen C. Wright Building in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Robert Runcie, the embattled superintendent who has come under increasing criticism since the Parkland shooting, survived an attempt to topple him from his post Tuesday.

The vote came shortly before 6 p.m. after nearly seven hours of debate. Six of his nine school board bosses voted to keep Runcie in the job he’s had since 2011.

Lori Alhadeff, the Parkland parent whose daughter was killed last year in the Feb. 14 massacre, voted to fire the superintendent along with board members Nora Rupert and Robin Bartleman.

Runcie said he was determined to move forward and fix the woes plaguing the district.

“We always need to recognize we’re not perfect,” he said after the vote. “This tragedy could have happened anywhere. But it happened here in Broward County.”

The legacy of the tragedy that took 17 lives will be felt in part by the uniting of a splintered community, he said.

“My job over the past year has been consumed with working on safety and security measures,” he said. “This has been ground zero for school safety as a result of what happened on Feb. 14.”

Both supporters and foes packed the meeting at district headquarters in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Outside, dozens of Runcie allies filled the hallway.

“I don’t think he should be fired,” said Norman Freeman, pastor of the Greater Antioch Missionary Baptist church in Pompano Beach. “I don’t see where there is any grievous negligence on his part.”

The South Florida Sun Sentinel has reported about a number of failures and missteps by the Broward School District. It has reported on a culture of tolerance that allows unruly students to have repeated second chances. The school district is now revising its discipline policies and the Promise program, which provides alternatives to arrests for some misdemeanor offenses, to make them less lenient.

The newspaper also identified how school districts in Broward and across the state underreport crimes, making their campuses appear safer than they are. The Sun Sentinel has also reported how the district failed to act on warning signs involving the killer, botched his special education services, failed to hold administrators accountable for actions related to the tragedy and has regularly hidden information from the public.

The school board spent more than four hours hearing from the public, most of whom defended Runcie. Many were gone by the time the board voted on the motion to fire Runcie.

Before the public comments began shortly after 11 a.m., the noise in the hallway was deafening. As the debate began, a hush came over the crowd in the hall filled with mostly black supporters.

Brenda Snipes, a former elections supervisor who worked for the school system for 39 years, stood in the hallway with dozens of other Runcie supporters. Snipes said she thinks he handled the horror of Parkland as well as anyone could have.

“The parents, I don’t know how they get up to move every day,” she said.

Runcie, who remained stone-faced during Tuesday’s discussion, has been running the nation’s sixth-largest school district since 2011.

The vote to terminate him came at the request of Alhadeff, the newest board member. She ran for the seat after her daughter Alyssa was killed in last year’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The Valentine’s Day shooting left 17 dead and another 17 wounded.

It also put Runcie under a microscope, with critics blasting him for mishandling the tragedy.

The Florida Supreme Court has signed off on a grand jury investigation to determine how well Broward has handled school security and spending.

“We are not under a grand jury investigation because the district is running so smoothly,” Alhadeff said last week.

Dozens of people spoke Tuesday, including pastors, principals and elected officials from the black community.

The first speaker, a black woman and former school board employee, called Runcie a great man.

“He cannot be at every school and every place at all times,” she said. “I understand the shooting happened. But let me tell you, there’s a lot of things that happen at different schools. The people he put in charge should be held responsible. This man should keep his job.”

The long line of supporters urging the school board to stand by their superintendent included Broward Commissioner Dale Holness, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, Lauderdale Lakes Mayor Hazelle Rogers and West Park Vice Mayor Brian Johnson.

“This community suffered a great tragedy,” Holness said. “We all feel the pain. We continue to share the grief and suffering of everyone who lost someone in that tragedy. We ought to be bringing about healing. This will not bring about healing.”

But Fort Lauderdale activist Charlie King said the school shooting has helped shine a spotlight on the incompetence plaguing the district.

“If you don’t fire him now, I don’t know when,” King said. “I want to see change. He promised change. He’s an enigma. He’s a smart man. Why he never followed through, I don’t know.”

The debate over whether to keep Runcie has turned into a huge racial divide, with black supporters accusing his critics of being racially motivated.

His critics, which include dozens of white Parkland parents, say Runcie’s race has nothing to do with it.

“I don’t think any of us looking for change care what color he is. It makes me so upset this is what it’s turned into,” said Debbi Hixon, widow of Chris Hixon.

Max Schachter, a Parkland parent whose son Alex was killed in the shooting, urged the board to fire Runcie and stop making excuses for his failures.

“We need new leadership in this district,” he said. “Our kids are not secure, and they’re not learning.”

One woman blamed Runcie and his team for the Parkland shooting.

“There’s 17 people that died on Feb. 14,” she said. “Nikolas Cruz might have held the weapon. But the district failed him. The grand jury is coming. And there is no one who will save Mr. Runcie.”

Runcie’s wife Diana, the last public speaker Tuesday, asked the board to spare her husband’s job.

“You have a diamond in that seat,” she said. “It is yours to lose.”

Alhadeff still moved forward with her motion to fire Runcie for cause, saying the shooting exposed the district’s many failures, including the glacial pace on an $800 million bond approved by voters in 2014.

Board member Patti Good defended Runcie, saying no one has walked in his shoes.

“This has been a very difficult year, a very painful year,” she said. “The words ‘spiraling out of control’ have been stated to be the reason for this meeting today. Spiraling out of control is exactly what will happen if this board chooses to leave this board without a superintendent. Mr. Runcie believes in our students and I believe in him.”

Levinson said Runcie was the best person to lead the district and provide stability.

“It is just wrong to make Superintendent Runcie the scapegoat,” she said.

Many expected Runcie to hold onto his job.

Parkland parents have been vocal in criticizing district leaders for failing to hold people accountable for the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.

They fault Runcie for a lack of urgency in fixing security flaws and repeated efforts to hide information from the public about the confessed gunman and the mistakes made before, during and after the shooting.

Hixon, who works in the school system, said she wants to see a change in leadership. “I don’t think he’s been a good leader in the aftermath,” she said. She said sees problems with salaries and the bond money.

At a recent town hall meeting, Runcie said he is committed to making schools safer through “layers of security,” including exterior fencing, single points of entry, police and armed guardians at each school, additional cameras and improved surveillance measures.

Runcie told the crowd he thinks about Parkland every day and is well aware that the shooting happened under his watch.

He has asked for more time to fix the problems.

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