South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Scott Travis | April 27, 2021
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, under siege since the Parkland school shooting three years ago, decided Tuesday to resign as he faced a perjury charge leveled by a statewide grand jury.
The school district’s top lawyer, Barbara Myrick, also resigned.
Runcie came to town nearly a decade ago to clean up a district plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and he leaves with the district facing similar issues.
During his tenure, he was lauded for closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, forging strong ties with the business community and expanding a debate program to one of the largest in the nation. He was named “superintendent of the year” multiple times by state and national education organizations.
But he also faced challenges he couldn’t overcome, including the school shooting that left 17 people dead on Feb. 14, 2018; an $800 million school renovation program that failed to deliver; and dwindling support on a board that now includes two members who lost family members during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
In the end, it was a grand jury formed after the Parkland shooting that led to his downfall.
Originally impaneled to review school safety, the scope expanded to include a $17 million technology deal that led to the indictment of a former district administrator on charges of bribery and bid tampering.
The grand jury started looking at former Chief Information Officer Tony Hunter after a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation uncovered that the district failed to seek competitive bids for the purchase of interactive flat panel TV’s. The contracts went to a friend and future boss of Hunter’s, who had sold him cars and a house at a large discount.
Runcie was arrested last Wednesday on a felony charge after that same grand jury accused him of committing perjury while testifying about the technology deal. Prosecutors alleged that he contacted witnesses to prepare for his grand jury testimony and then denied it when questioned about it.
Tuesday morning, Runcie released a video through the school district promising he would be vindicated in the criminal case, repeating a statement from his attorney suggesting that politics was behind the indictment. Gov. Ron DeSantis came into office promising to hold Runcie accountable for the Parkland shooting, and the governor impaneled the grand jury that indicted him.
Despite pledging to fight on, Runcie told the School Board he was ready to step down after a majority of board members said Tuesday that they wanted to place him on leave or fire him.
“I cannot put myself above the needs of our district,” he said. “We’re unfortunately in a climate where forgiveness, compassion and love have far too often taken a back seat to grievance, anger and hate.”
Myrick, who was arrested on a felony charge of illegally disclosing information from the grand jury, announced that she, too, would resign rather than face continual questions from the School Board.
The board plans to meet at 11 a.m. Thursday to discuss Runcie’s and Myrick’s separation agreements and who will lead the district.
Runcie makes $356,000 a year and would be entitled to $137,000 in severance. Myrick, who is paid $220,000 a year, would be in line for $84,615. School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood plans to negotiate with them on Wednesday.
A majority of the School Board had the power to fire Runcie and Myrick under the terms of their contracts. But if board members wanted to avoid paying hefty severance packages, they’d have to fire them for good cause, which would have required more than an arrest.
Their contracts say they could be removed without severance for being convicted of a crime. Board members also could use immorality, misconduct in office, incompetency, gross insubordination or willful neglect of duty to fire them. Otherwise, board members would have to fire them “without cause,” which would entitle them to 20 weeks of severance pay
Runcie’s lawyers said his resignation was not part of any negotiation with the state to resolve his criminal charge. “Absolutely not,” said attorney Johnny McCray. “We intend to continue fighting these charges, and as he said earlier today, he will be vindicated.”
The school district is expected to continue to pay the legal fees for Runcie and Myrick. If they are convicted of their crimes, they would be expected to repay the district, said Marylin Batista, a district lawyer.
“Traditionally the district has always paid for representatives of school district employees who’ve been charged with criminal or civil processes” when it’s related to their jobs, Batista said.
The resignations saddened board member Laurie Rich Levinson, a strong ally to both Runcie and Myrick.
“It’s a very sad day for Broward County Public Schools,” she said. “What happened here has nothing to do with our children, but Mr. Runcie is not putting himself above the needs of our children.”
Levinson blamed the incident on critics who have said for three years that his administration failed to prepare for a mass shooting and failed to respond with any sense of urgency.
Board member Debbi Hixon, who lost her husband, Chris, at Parkland, said she never blamed Runcie or the district for what happened at Stoneman Douglas. “My issue is what happened after,” she said.
Through tears, she urged a fractured board, often divided 5-4 on issues surrounding Runcie, to come together.
“We can’t continue to be divisive and let it be about Feb. 14,” Hixon said.
Board member Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter Alyssa in the Parkland shooting, has been one of Runcie’s fiercest critics on the board, She asked the board to fire him in 2019, but the effort failed 6-3.
She made it clear again Tuesday she no longer wanted him as superintendent.
“I’ve had enough. It’s time to act in the district’s best interest,” she said. “I see ample evidence which has been building for this board to act.”
Runcie sounded defeated as he addressed her.
“I know you’ve been in enormous amounts of pain that none of us can ever imagine,” Runcie told her. “I guess I’m part of the source of that in some ways. If it’s going to give you the peace you’re looking for, I will step aside.”
It was clear that Runcie’s four critics on the board — Hixon, Alhadeff, Sarah Leonardi and Nora Rupert — were not going to support allowing him to handle day-to-day operations while he fought his criminal charges. But it was when one of his strongest allies, Donna Korn, said she supported placing him on leave that Runcie offered to step down.
Korn, who rarely shows emotion on the dais, broke down in tears.
“Mr. Runcie, you have changed life and after life, and for that I thank you for those children,” she said. “You have been a beacon. You’ll be missed.”
Runcie has enjoyed support from Black religious leaders and business leaders of all races. Those leaders came out to support him during a rally last week. They said he’d created great programs to help stop the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline and help students choose careers.
Many credited him for a program called Promise, which allowed students who committed non-violent offenses to avoid jail time. But that program also came under attack after it was revealed that the Parkland shooter had briefly participated in the program and that the district gave false information about his involvement.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, a school district portal received about 65 comments from the public, running 3 to 1 in favor of removing Runcie temporarily or permanently. Eight people wrote that they wanted Myrick removed, with none explicitly stating support for her.
Natasha Gonell, of Pembroke Pines, said Runcie’s arrest set a bad example for students like her 13-year-old son. She recommended the board fire him.
“I think it’s very sad that he’s had to see his superintendent’s mugshot all over the news,” she said. “My son and all of the students of Broward County schools deserve a superintendent they can look up to. Guilty or not, the arrest and everything being said on the news about it is not going to just go away.”
Others wanted Runcie to stay, saying he’s the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt engineered by Florida’s Republican governor.
Supporters like Miramar resident Dina Bertrand say Runcie has done a great job.
“I have witnessed first-hand his dedication and hard work for our children,” wrote Bertrand, whose grandchildren attend Broward schools. “I believe that it would be a shame to disrupt the education of our children.”
Staff writer Rafael Olmeda contributed to this report.