Miami Herald | by David Goodhue | April 29, 2021
Broward County School Board members were hoping to approve embattled Superintendent Robert Runcie’s separation agreement by the end of next week, but they hit a snag during a meeting Thursday morning over which attorney would represent them in negotiations.
Runcie, 59, and the district’s general counsel, Barbara Myrick, 72, agreed to step down from their jobs Tuesday following an April 15 grand jury indictment.
Runcie is facing a perjury charge related to his grand jury testimony on March 31 and April 1 and Myrick is accused of disclosing the grand jury’s proceedings. Since they are both under contract, their severances must be negotiated with the School Board.
The district planned to use labor attorney Michael Burke to represent School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood in negotiations with the two administrators next week. The plan was then to have Osgood bring the negotiated deals before her colleagues at a meeting next Thursday where they would discuss and vote on it.
But, School Board Member Lori Alhadeff said she does not want to use Burke, who is a “cadre attorney” for the district — meaning he does not work for Broward schools, but is among a stable of lawyers who has represented the district in past litigation.
“I feel uncomfortable with using this lawyer because he does business with the School Board,” Alhadeff said. “We need someone who does not do business with the School Board.”
Most of the eight other board members on the dais agreed with Alhadeff, saying they did not want any doubt that the negotiations were possibly clouded by any bias when the agreement came back to them for a vote.
“I don’t want anything convoluted here or claims made,” Vice Chair Laurie Rich Levinson said.
Marylin Batista, a staff attorney for the district, tried to ease their concerns about Burke, saying whichever attorney is chosen will simply be present to make sure everything discussed is legal and will not be involved in the specifics of the negotiations.
“The role of the attorney is not to negotiate the contract,” she said.
SEEK AN ATTORNEY FROM ANOTHER SCHOOL DISTRICT
Nevertheless, Osgood said she supported the rest of the board, which wants to seek an attorney from another school district to represent Broward in the separation agreement talks.
“I personally think that it’s more important that we’re all comfortable and it’s a fair process,” she said.
Batista said she will reach out to neighboring school districts, but the process could delay the negotiations — and next Thursday’s planned vote as a result.
At Tuesday’s School Board meeting, which was called to discuss Runcie’s and Myrick’s employment with the district in light of the indictments, Burke said there were three options for ending their employment: termination with cause, termination without cause and a negotiated separation.
Although no vote was taken, or expected, at that meeting, both Runcie and Myrick agreed to resign.
Under state law, the maximum severance pay for a public employee is five months’ salary. Runcie makes $356,000 a year. Myrick’s annual salary is $220,000.
For Runcie, the maximum payout is estimated to be $137,000 in salary and $196,000 in unused sick time and vacation. For Myrick, the district estimates her maximum payout to be $92,000 in salary and $116,000 in unused sick time and vacation, the district’s Chief Financial Officer Judith Marte said Thursday.
The School Board hired Runcie in 2011. In November 2017, the board extended his contract for the second time, which was set to expire in June 2023. Myrick was hired by the board as general counsel in 2016 and has worked for the district since 2002.
APPOINT AN INTERIM SUPERINTENDENT
Following the approval of the separation agreements, School Board members said they want to appoint an interim superintendent until they settle on a permanent replacement for Runcie.
He’s leaving at a busy time for the district — the sixth largest in the nation — as teachers prepare for the return of all students to in-person learning in the fall, and as they work to quickly catch up students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.
For many students, this means attending several summer sessions the district has planned. During this time, School Board members said an interim top administrator is needed.
“My concern is there are a number of things that can only be done through that office,” School Board Member Debra Hixon said. “The summer is a lull time, but not for us because we are running a massive summer program.”
“We do need to move in the direction of appointing an interim superintendent,” said Patricia Good, another School Board member.
During public comment at Thursday’s meeting, several of Runcie’s supporters showed up to praise him and urge the board to negotiate a fair separation agreement.
Julian Garvin, from Delray Beach, said the whole process has been rooted in politics and racism from the start.
“Race has always been there. It didn’t have to be. But it was,” he said.
Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, who has publicly expressed his support for Runcie since his arrest last Wednesday, noted Runcie has the backing of a wide swath of interests in the county — from religious and community leaders, to the local business sector, including the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce.
“Superintendent Runcie has served the county with distinction. It’s sad,’’ Holness said. “I’m broken to see you leave after what you have done for Broward County. To see him go out like this is painful to many of us in the community. And, it cuts across every line.”
DESANTIS AUTHORIZED THE GRAND JURY
Gov. Ron DeSantis authorized the grand jury in February 2019, a month after he was sworn into office. It was investigating whether school districts were complying with state school safety laws that the Legislature passed in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, which killed 17 students and faculty members and injured another 17.
The grand jury was also investigating whether school districts were using funds earmarked for school safety for other purposes.
DeSantis, and several parents of the Parkland shooting victims, including Alhadeff, blame Runcie for setting up the conditions leading up to Nikolas Cruz opening fire on his former Parkland schoolmates and teachers.
Runcie was instrumental in implementing an initiative that placed students who commit certain misdemeanors in an alternative school rather than getting the police involved.
School officials transferred Cruz from Stoneman Douglas to an alternative school over disciplinary issues in 2017.
Alhadeff’s 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shootings.
THE STATE’S CASE AGAINST RUNCIE; RUNCIE’S ATTORNEYS SEEK DISMISSAL
Statewide prosecutor Richard Mantei, in court papers filed Monday, said Runcie lied about contacting at least one person on a witness list for another case the grand jury was investigating. That case resulted in the indictment of the school district’s former technology chief, Tony Hunter, in January on charges he steered lucrative contracts to a friend’s company, bypassing the bidding process.
Runcie’s attorneys have filed two motions to dismiss so far.
One filed Wednesday says the information contained in the indictment and a subsequent filing from the statewide prosecutor is “vague, indefinite and uncertain as to embarrass and hinder the Defendant in the preparation of Defendant’s defense in the event of conviction or acquittal, would subject the Defendant to multiple trials on the same circumstances, jeopardy failing to attach.”
The lawyers filed a 12-page motion to dismiss last week, based on the indictment, which did not specifically say what statement or statements Runcie made during his March 31 and April 1 testimony to the grand jury that prosecutors say are untrue.
Runcie’s attorneys Wednesday also filed a demand for discovery, wanting to know what evidence prosecutors have in the case so far.