DeSantis removes Broward County school board members after grand jury report

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis removed and replaced four members of the Broward County school board on Friday after a grand jury that was convened to examine the failures that led up to the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida recommended the action. DeSantis said in a statement that it’s his “duty to suspend people from office when there is clear evidence of incompetence, neglect of duty, misfeasance or malfeasance”; pointing to evidence laid out in the grand jury report released last week that found the ousted board members had displayed all of those disqualifications when it came to a program called SMART.

In the 122-page report released Friday, the panel recommended that DeSantis suspend board members Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson. A former member, Rosalind Osgood, also was targeted, but she has since been elected to the Florida Senate and taken office.

Levinson, the board’s chairwoman, angrily slammed the report as a “political hatchet job” orchestrated by the governor.

“It is nasty partisan politics. He should be ashamed of himself,” she said.

… Former Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie resigned last year after he was indicted for allegedly lying to the grand jury. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. The district is the nation’s sixth-largest, with more than 270,000 students at 333 campuses, and an annual budget of $4 billion.

The school board has nine members, including two, Debra Hixon and Lori Alhadeff, who were elected after Hixon’s husband Chris and Alhadeff’s daughter Alyssa died in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. They ran on platforms promoting better campus security. Alhadeff, in particular, has frequently been at odds with the targeted members, particularly over Runcie’s performance before his resignation.

Stand with Parkland, the group that represents most of the victims’ families, issued a statement that applauded the report, saying it “proves what we already suspected – acts of incompetence, negligence and coverup and a School Board (that) is unwilling to face the facts.” President Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the attack, called on DeSantis to remove the four members from the board.

The grand jury said that Runcie’s and the accused board members’ “uninformed or even misinformed decisions, incompetent management and lack of meaningful oversight” has led to massive cost overruns and delays in a school safety and education program approved by county voters in 2014. The report says the $1 billion program that was supposed to be completed in 2021 is now projected to cost $1.5 billion when it is finished in 2025 — estimates the jury called “wishcasting.”

“This doubling of time and almost 50 percent increase in cost did not happen overnight,” the grand jury wrote. “It was a slow-boiling frog that resulted from years of mismanagement from multiple (district) officials whose mistakes were compounded by the Board, which has….refused to hold (district) leadership to account.”

I suspect this will be a broadly popular move around the state, though perhaps less so in Broward County itself. As for the new school board members, two of them have previous experience serving on school boards, and all four appear to have solid credentials in the community. And with the governor merely following the recommendations of the duly empaneled grand jury, the complaints from ousted school board members like Levinson that this is nothing more than “nasty partisan politics” isn’t likely to resonate with most voters.

According to the grand jury’s 122-page report, district officials and the ousted board members displayed “an almost fanatical desire to control data and use it to manipulate public perception,” and were seemingly more interested in the building the district’s “brand” while treating students more like statistics. If the voters of Broward County disagree with that conclusion I suppose they can always re-elect the now-former board members at the next opportunity, but for now there’s a new board, and one that’s hopefully more accountable to parents, students, and staff… not mention one that a grand jury doesn’t accuse of being more interested in student safety than public relations.