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Embattled Florida School Superintendent Runcie to Step Down After Perjury Arrest Tied to Parkland Shooting Inquiry

By Mark Keierleber | April 29, 2021

(Getty Images)

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Embattled Broward County schools chief Robert Runcie is expected to step down after the school board voted Thursday to negotiate a separation agreement following his indictment on a charge he lied to a grand jury investigating the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland.

The decision came during an anticlimactic board meeting just two days after Runcie, who has served as superintendent of the country’s sixth-largest school district for nearly a decade, offered to resign during an emotional workshop where a majority of the board members said he should be placed on administrative leave or fired. Thursday’s vote allows board chair Rosalind Osgood to negotiate the terms of separation agreements with both Runcie and the school system’s longtime lawyer, Barbara Myrick, who was also arrested on a felony charge last week.

“I’m on a mission today to move this district forward, to move this county forward in peace and love,” Osgood said.

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Runcie was arrested last week and charged with felony perjury for allegedly lying under oath to a statewide grand jury impaneled in 2019 by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 dead. Myrick was charged with felony unlawful disclosure of statewide grand jury proceedings. Runcie has pleaded not guilty and has asked a judge to dismiss the case.

When Runcie offered to step down Tuesday, he pointed to political infighting and the proliferation of “wildly inaccurate conspiracy theories” after the 2018 killings that rocked the nation rather than the felony charge against him.

“This cannot be the world that we want our children to inherit, it just can’t be,” he said. “It’s certainly not an environment that I can effectively lead this district for the long term unless there’s a real desire for reconciliation and to move forward — and it doesn’t seem like there is.”

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He said he loved each of the nine board members and those in the community who came to his defense with full force. But for the board members at that point, it was clear that the love was no longer mutual.

The terms of the separation agreement, which the school board must approve before they’re finalized, could allow Runcie to stay in his post for up to 90 days. Runcie’s exit from the district could be delayed if he and the school board fail to reach an agreement. The board is expected to vote on it next week. Runcie, whose base salary is $335,000, has a contract that allows him to receive 20 weeks of severance pay worth more than $135,000 and nearly $200,000 in accrued sick and vacation leave. The district is expected to pay Runcie’s and Myrick’s legal fees, but both would ultimately be required to reimburse the school system if they’re convicted.

After the 2018 school shooting — the worst in U.S. history — DeSantis created the grand jury to investigate school security issues at the district, noting a desire to hold officials accountable for the tragedy. The grand jury, which is expected to drop its final report in the near future, has since taken a more expansive look into district practices. In fact, Runcie’s arrest doesn’t center on gun violence, but instead on flat-screen televisions.

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In a court filing Monday, prosecutors said that Runcie contacted witnesses in a pending criminal case to prepare for his grand jury testimony, held just days later, and then lied about connecting with them when questioned under oath. Myrick also contacted witnesses in the pending corruption case and discussed them with Runcie, prosecutors alleged. Though Runcie stated under oath that he had no contacts with the witnesses including via phone, email and even “smoke signals,” prosecutors said that telephone records tell a different story.

The pending criminal case involves former chief information officer Anthony Hunter, who was arrested in January after an investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel found he steered no-bid contracts for some $17 million in flat-screen interactive televisions to a friend, who reportedly sold two cars and a house in Georgia to the school official at a discount. Hunter has pleaded not guilty. The purchases were part of an $800 million bond program approved in 2014 to update school buildings, including enhanced security.

“Others may be willing to simply overlook multiple barefaced falsehoods and obstructive statements under oath,” Richard Mantei, the designated assistant statewide prosecutor, wrote in a court filing Monday. But the grand jury “was not.”

Just hours before agreeing to step down, Runcie released a video statement claiming he would be “fully vindicated” in the criminal case and had no intentions of resigning. “I look forward to due process being followed, where individuals are treated fairly through the normal judicial system,” he said. His attorneys, along with numerous business and religious leaders who rallied in his defense, held that Runcie’s indictment was politically motivated.

The Broward County schools community has been caught up in controversy and infighting since the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day more than three years ago. Several shooting survivors and victims’ families have become Runcie’s biggest critics. Among them is former Parkland student Kyle Kashuv who survived the shooting and became a conservative activist in support of gun rights. In a tweet following Runcie’s arrest, Kashuv blamed the shooting on “local officials’ corruption.”

In 2019, Runcie survived a school board motion to have him removed as superintendent by a 6-3 vote. His attempted ouster was led by Lori Alhadeff, who secured a school board seat after her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the shooting.

Alhadeff again became a leading voice in favor of Runcie’s ouster during Tuesday’s board workshop, arguing that her efforts were not “of political nature,” but because Runcie’s incompetence and lack of leadership was the source of “a plethora of problems” in the district, including deteriorating campuses.

In announcing his willingness to resign Tuesday, Runcie spoke to Alhadeff directly, acknowledging that her daughter’s death caused “enormous amounts of pain that none of us can ever imagine,” and that he hoped his resignation would provide “the peace you’re looking for.”

“Ms. Alhadeff, I’m immensely sorry for your loss,” Runcie said. “I hope that your future is better. I can’t erase the past, but we’ll try to move forward.”

‘His day in court’

Runcie has led Broward County schools since 2011, after then-Superintendent Jim Notter retired early during a moment of intense scrutiny. Runcie’s hiring was portrayed as a fresh start after a statewide grand jury report accused the board of being corrupted by contractors and lobbyists and two school board members were charged with bribery. Before heading south to Florida, he was chief of staff to then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan, a college friend of Runcie’s who would later go on to serve as U.S. education secretary during the Obama administration.

Runcie’s time with the district was longer than the typical tenure for superintendents of major urban school systems, and he built a network of local and national allies who flocked to support him following his arrest. Some called the grand jury a witch hunt and others questioned whether the charges against Runcie, who is Black, were racially motivated.

Last Friday, several dozen business, government and religious leaders spoke out in Runcie’s defense, portraying his tenure as a boon for Broward schools, including an uptick in student achievement and graduation rates. Bishop C.E. Glover of Mount Bethel Ministries in Fort Lauderdale said that “an indictment is not proof of guilt.”

“I challenge the school board today not to attempt to take any punitive action against our superintendent without him having due process,” Glover said. “It has been said that a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich. Why? Because they only hear one side of the story. They only hear the prosecutor’s argument.”

Runcie also received public support from Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan national network of reform-minded education leaders. Runcie sits on its board of directors and members include district leaders from Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. In a statement, Magee said that Runcie “has always shown himself to be a person of the highest integrity” whose decisions at the helm of Broward County Schools were made “with students’ best interests at heart.”

In an interview on Thursday, Magee said he hasn’t spoken to Runcie since his arrest but that education leaders nationwide continue to think highly of his leadership. During his tenure, district efforts to bring “coherence to instruction and curriculum” were among “the best in the country,” Magee said, and that his work to address students’ mental health after the shooting was “first rate.”

“I hope he gets every opportunity to lead another system,” he said, “because he’s one of the best in the country at it and it’s his calling.”

Magee added that divisive politics is par for the course for the leaders of major school systems, including in Broward County. However, he couldn’t say whether politics played any role in Runcie’s arrest.

“There are times where the politics are overwhelming,” he said. “When you have a politically charged issue, like in the aftermath of something like Parkland, and a highly contentious community and statewide debate about gun control and school safety, there’s no avoiding the worst elements of politics.”

But as other backers maintain that divisive politics are to blame, board member Debra Hixon asserted that the grand jury process has been conducted fairly. In a local television news interview, she noted that the grand jury included community members who were “arbitrarily selected” from three Florida counties.

“When you look at who made up this grand jury and how they were selected, I’d like to believe that the process is going through the proper steps,” Hixon said. “Now he’ll have his day in court to decide whether he’s truly guilty.”

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