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DeSantis suspends 4 Broward school board members after grand jury report

DeSantis also named four replacements.
Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended four Broward school board members. The four, from left, are Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Laurie Rich Levinson and Ann Murray.
Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended four Broward school board members. The four, from left, are Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Laurie Rich Levinson and Ann Murray.
Published Aug. 26, 2022|Updated Aug. 27, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday suspended four Broward County School Board members for engaging in what the governor described as “incompetence, neglect of duty, and misuse of authority.”

“It is my duty to suspend people from office when there is clear evidence of incompetence, neglect of duty, misfeasance or malfeasance,” DeSantis said in a news release.

DeSantis said the decision is in response to findings of a statewide grand jury that was tasked with investigating the Broward School Board’s response to the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting that left 17 students and staff dead and 17 injured. The grand jury report, completed in April and released last Friday, cited the “incompetent management” of the targeted board members and former Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie over the cost overruns of a $1 billion school safety program.

“We are grateful to the members of the jury who have dedicated countless hours to this mission and we hope this suspension brings the Parkland community another step towards justice,” DeSantis said. “This action is in the best interest of the residents and students of Broward County and all citizens of Florida.”

DeSantis suspended Board Chair Laurie Rich Levinson, Board Vice Chair Patricia Good and board members Donna Korn and Ann Murray — and appointed Torey Alston, Manuel “Nandy” A. Serrano, Ryan Reiter and Kevin Tynan to replace them.

Rich Levinson, 59, and Murray, 80, chose not to seek reelection this year. Korn, 51, is slated to be in a runoff election on Nov. 8. And Good, 59, was set to have her term ended in 2024. The board has nine members.

DeSantis now has appointed five of the nine board members, as he appointed Daniel Foganholi to the board on April 29 after Osgood stepped down. Foganholi did not run for the District 5 seat in Tuesday’s election; his term runs through November. School board members normally are elected, not appointed by the governor.

The suspended board members are all women. The appointees are all men.

DeSantis’ suspensions drew sharp criticism from two of the suspended board members and a former board chairperson.

“What country is this? What Governor DeSantis did is un-American and undemocratic,” Rich Levinson, the board chairperson suspended by the governor, said in a written statement emailed to the Herald. “He doesn’t care about democracy and overturned the will of the voters.”

“Because you may disagree on local policy decisions is not a reason to remove someone from elected office,” added Rich Levinson, who served on the board for 12 years. “This is all about political retribution for not firing Superintendent Runcie. It’s about blaming the Superintendent, and any School Board Members who supported him, for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. Governor DeSantis impaneled a Grand Jury, under the guise of school safety, as a pretext to remove School Board Members who did not fire the former Superintendent. Do future Board Members need to pre-clear their votes with DeSantis? Could future Democratic Governors now remove locally elected Republicans?”

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The Florida Supreme Court empaneled the grand jury at DeSantis’ request in 2019, about a year after the Feb. 14, 2018, Parkland shootings. The grand jury was charged with looking at school safety issues in Florida’s school districts, particularly in Broward and Miami-Dade.

In April 2021, Runcie, 59, was arrested and charged with lying to the grand jury over his testimony pertaining to how the district used state funds meant to bolster school safety. Legal experts have said Runcie’s perjury charge is rare and difficult to prosecute.

The board did not fire Runcie after his arrest. Instead, the board, citing its contractual obligations to Runcie, approved a nearly $755,000 separation agreement with him in a 5-4 vote in May 2021. Runcie, who stepped down in August 2021, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a trial.

The district’s general counsel, Barbara Myrick, 72, was indicted on a felony charge of unlawful disclosure of statewide grand jury proceedings. She entered a plea of “stands mute,” which means the court will enter a plea for her.

The board’s former chairperson also strongly criticized DeSantis.

“When you think about the democratic process, local citizens elect elected officials,” said Rosalind Osgood, the former Broward School Board chairperson and who resigned from the board to run for a Florida State Senate seat. “It is my personal belief that unless someone commits a crime, no one has the right to remove them because then they go against the voters’ choice. And no crime was committed here or we would have been arrested,” she said.

The grand jury report had recommended that Osgood, too, be suspended. But Osgood, a Democrat, was elected to the Florida Senate in March and is no longer on the School Board. DeSantis’ office noted that Osgood is not subject to the governor’s executive suspension authority.

Korn, a former English teacher who was the Broward School Board chairperson in 2014 and 2020, had a similar message to Osgood’s in a statement she issued Friday: “I am very disappointed in the Governor’s decision to once again put politics above education in Broward County. I am confident that our community will see past the headlines and sound bites and focus on my record which stands on its own merits. I am undoubtedly the most qualified candidate to continue serving Broward County.”

In Tuesday’s Broward School Board elections, Korn was locked in a close race with Allen Zeman, a former senior executive at the Pentagon. Each garnered about 30% of the vote and are slated to face each other in the Nov. 8 runoff election.

Parents who lost their children in the Parkland shootings had a decidedly different view and applauded DeSantis.

Lori Alhadeff, the District 4 board member elected to the board a few months after her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, celebrated DeSantis’ move.

Speaking directly to the governor in a written statement, she showed appreciation: “Thank you to Governor DeSantis for your swift action that holds school board members accountable based on the findings of the Grand Jury Report,” said Alhadeff, who was reelected in Tuesday’s election with 61% of the vote.

“Many thanks for your continued commitment to school safety and high quality education for all of our students and staff,” she added.

Stand with Parkland, the group that represents 15 of the 17 victims’ families in the Parkland shootings, also strongly supported DeSantis.

“We applaud the Governor’s action to follow the recommendation from Florida’s 20th Statewide Grand Jury and remove the Broward School Board members — citing their gross-negligence, misfeasance, malfeasance, and shear incompetence caused the mishandling of many of the aspects of the tragic date that took the lives so many at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I look forward to working collectively with their replacements on ways to ensure Broward County School are the safest in our country,” Stand with Parkland president, Tony Montalto, said in a statement emailed to the Herald.

Montalto lost his daughter, 14-year-old Gina Montalto, in the Parkland shootings.

“Furthermore, we want to remind those claiming this is a political act, that School District elections are nonpartisan, " Montalto added. “Governor DeSantis [sic] action[s] are the legitimate use of governmental powers to hold elected leaders accountable. The Grand Jury investigation ran for over 2 years, hearing testimony from many individuals. The Floridians on that jury determined that the citizens of Broward County had been subjected to incompetent school board members who mismanaged tax dollars and put students and teachers at risk.”

The head of the Broward Teachers Union didn’t share that viewpoint.

“The community won’t put up with it,” Anna Fusco, the union’s president, said Friday afternoon, referencing DeSantis’ removal of the four School Board members. “We have a very strong community. Hopefully everyone will get out and vote in November.”

After Tuesday’s elections, there will be a runoff for four School Board seats on Nov. 8. In addition to Alhadeff, incumbent Nora Rupert was reelected Tuesday.

John Sullivan, a spokesman for the district, said the district will continue to focus on its mission of educating students.

“Broward County Public Schools is in receipt of the Governor’s Executive Order 22-202,” he said. “As our District undergoes this transition, we remain focused on the operations of our schools and our commitment to our Student First approach to provide a great educational experience to all students.”

Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright left the Broward School Board building in downtown Fort Lauderdale around 5:30 p.m. Friday. The board hired Cartwright last summer to replace Runcie.

She walked by a black bulletin board inside the building that usually portrays all school board members’ photos and names. On Friday evening, the bulletin board had four gaping black holes in it.

Asked if she could comment further on the issue, Cartwright pointed to her cellphone and a conversation she was having.

The announcement from the governor’s office provided these details about the appointees:

  • Alston is a former Broward County commissioner and president of Indelible Solutions.
  • Serrano is a member of the Florida Sports Foundation Board of Directors, and founder and CEO of Clubhouse Private Wealth.
  • Reiter is a Marine veteran and director of government relations for Kaufman Lynn Construction.
  • Tynan, an attorney with Richardson and Tynan, previously served on the Broward County School Board and the South Broward Hospital District Board of Commissioners.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.