An Investigation Into Broward County’s School Board & Superintendent

Photo by Emilee McGovern

Motivation

My name is Kenneth Preston. I’m a 19-year-old Broward County student who has been working trying to uncover factors and individuals who share blame in the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas. Over the past month, I have learned the names and stories of all the victims. Their stories, along with the incredible strides made by the families to bring change, have compelled me to dedicate every ounce of energy and time to bring injustices to light. I’m not with an organization and I have no agenda whatsoever other than holding government officials responsible for their actions.

After weeks of research, searching through thousands of pages of government documents, and speaking with dozens of officials, I have come to the conclusion that Superintendent Runcie and members of the school board have failed at their essential role in keeping our students safe. Whether that’s because of incompetence or the incentive of federal dollars is for you to decide based on the evidence provided below.

Ultimately, no matter what laws pass, the extent, or how infrequent these shootings become, if the people who were complicit in facilitating an environment in which something like this could occur don’t face consequences, then there is no justice.

Absolutely everything that I’ve said as a part of my research has been meticulously sourced. In fact, the majority of the statistics that I have cited are from the Broward School Board and relevant agencies directly. If you find anything that isn’t sourced, feel free to contact me with the contact info listed above and I will provide one.

School Safety Funding/Money Mismanagement

In 2010, an independent statewide Grand Jury created by former Governor Charlie Christ was tasked with investigating the Broward County School Board for corruption [1]. It was the third Grand Jury investigating the school board since 1997. In 2011, the Grand Jury came back with a ruling that found extreme money mismanagement and corruption by school board officials. [2] They found that the culture of corruption in the School Board ran so deep that even replacing the Board members wouldn’t help, so they suggested the Broward School board be dissolved entirely: “But for the Constitutional mandate that requires an elected School Board for each District, our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County School Board altogether.” [3] Aside from that, they listed 21 recommendations for the Broward School Board including allowing the district to vote on the Superintendent, preventing board members from selecting of contractors, and creating an independent office of IG to monitor the board. [2] The current school board has ignored almost all of those measures.

Ignoring the recommendations of the Grand Jury, the School Board selected Robert Runcie without public approval, to become the new Superintendent in hopes he would bring newfound transparency and his federal connections to the district. Prior to this, Runcie was hired by Obama’s future Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to be his Chief Information Officer at Chicago Public Schools. Mr. Runcie was demoted from his position at CPS for undisclosed reasons just three months before becoming Broward’s Superintendent in 2011. [4]

Once here, Runcie has taken actions that can be interpreted as less than transparent. Almost immediately, he proposed cutting the number of publicly accessible school board meetings in half. The bulk of the public’s frustration with Runcie’s transparency, however, has to do with the allocation and spending of funds meant for Broward Public Schools. In recent weeks, Superintendent Runcie has gone on a media crusade insisting that the solution to school safety concerns is more money. [5] In a letter to Governor Scott, Runcie criticized the increased safety funding as “significantly inadequate.” [6] What Superintendent Runcie fails to mention, however, is that he’s had access to nearly $100,000,000 designated specifically for school safety for years as part of a 2014 Bond Appropriation.

In 2014, Runcie successfully convinced Broward residents to vote on $800 million in bonds for Broward County Public Schools to invest back into the schools. [7] According to The Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC), an anti-corruption measure, there should be a committee of 11 people, five of whom are members from the public, that would decide what companies were given lucrative contracts to manage that $800,000,000 in voter-approved projects. Just a year later, Superintendent Runcie, who was tasked with bringing transparency to the board, moved to bypass those anti-corruption measures by removing members of the public from voting on who received the contracts. [8] School Board member Robin Bartleman opposed removing the public from the decisions saying, “it’s going to be an issue,” She went on to say: “Stuff like this snowballs…Things like this get out of control. I’ve seen it before.” [9]

Robin Bartleman was right. Three years later, the program has been fraught with delays, [10] Robert Runcie’s former special assistant revealed contracts were being awarded unfairly, [11] and cost estimates for projects that are nowhere near completion are booming with as much as 57%. As part of the program, $104,325,821 was designated specifically for school safety. [12] Of that money, only $5,584,512 (roughly 5.3%) has been spent since its passage. [13] If the school safety money continues to be doled out at the current rate of 1.76% spent per year, Broward Public Schools will not see the entirety of that safety money for another 53 years, or the year 2,071. Superintendent Runcie called an article referencing this report “fake news” and recommended anyone interested in facts should look to Florida TaxWatch, [14] an independent organization tasked with overseeing the distribution of the money. I reached out to Florida Taxwatch, and Vice President of Research Robert Nave has told me that my numbers are correct. [15] And while the Superintendent might blame red tape and contracting issues for the delays, his former Special Assistant Michael Marchetti, says the blame lies squarely on Runcie’s shoulders: “He [Superintendent Runcie] can cut through all that red tape. He could’ve made things happen if he wanted to.”

The School Board’s failure to provide adequate funding for school safety comes as no surprise to Broward Sheriff’s Union President Jeff Bell, who said this to Laura Ingraham: “Some of the fault I put on the Broward County school board. For years they know that the schools have been soft targets. They claim that they want to have better police presence inside the schools and they want tougher security, but yet they do not want to cough up the money to pay for that better security and fortify their schools and have better designs, they don’t want that.” [16]

Robert Runcie and program managers insist that the program is on track, but in a report by Florida TaxWatch, the organization the Superintendent referred us to, has criticized Runcie and the District’s handling of the bond money saying, “The public has every right to know which school projects are delayed and the reasons for the delay, as well as which school projects are over-budget,” as well as saying that despite their recommendations, “the district fails to identify those projects likely to be delayed and those projects that are likely to require additional funding.” [17]

Promise Program/Behavior Intervention Program

In July of 2011, Robert Runcie’s former boss and now Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative meant to “end the school-to-prison pipeline” in an effort to combat the disproportionate number of minority students being arrested. [18] As part of that Initiative, it was required that any district applying for a part of the $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” money (a federal grant competition Broward had received $37.4 million from a few years prior) [19] must analyze and address their disproportionate student discipline/arrest rates. [20] In March of 2013, the Department of Education listed Broward County as one of those counties with “disproportionate discipline rates.” [21] Months later, Robert Runcie and the Broward School Board applied and become finalists for the “Race to the Top” grant [22] after promising their intent to have an “evaluation of proposed indicators around attendance, suspensions, and arrests and promoting school-wide, positive behavior interventions.” [23]

Soon after, Superintendent Robert Runcie, the School Board, and the Sheriff’s office created a collaborative agreement intended to address the “school-to-prison pipeline” by outlining a process in which student misconduct can be handled through rehabilitation programs and alternative discipline in place of arrest. [24] A list of misdemeanors which were included in these diversion programs include harassment, fighting, assault, and threats — all of which Nikolas Cruz was reported for, but never arrested. [25] Robert Runcie claims the shooter never benefited from the programs because he was never formally enrolled in the “Promise” portion of collaborative agreement. However, Jeff Bell, President of the Broward Sheriff’s Union and supporter of the Promise Program says, “There’s no documented report that he was ever enrolled into the PROMISE Program. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t confronted with something and just let go.” [26] The District’s document on disciplinary reform would support Bell’s statement, as Broward’s current discipline matrix allows school administrator’s complete discretion in deciding the discipline a student receives as well as whether or not to report the student to law enforcement. In fine print at the bottom of the document, it states that “School principals have the discretion to deviate from these guidelines by assessing an appropriate consequence other than stated in the Matrix.” [27] So while the Superintendent claims that Cruz never committed infractions that was be subject to these discipline reform programs, the evidence points to the opposite. In April of 2016 Dana Craig reported Cruz to the school for threats against her, on January 19th the next year, Stoneman Douglas disciplinary records show Cruz was reported for a low-level assault, and in September of 2017 he was suspended for fighting [25] — all three of these infractions are covered under the Promise Program, Behavior Intervention Program, and current discipline matrix. [24]

Within a matter of years, the discipline reform effort took Broward County’s student arrest rate from the highest in the state, to one of the lowest. The number of school-related misdemeanor arrests dropped from 757 in 2011–2012 to 166 in 2015–2016, that’s a 78% drop in arrests over a five-year span. [28] While Superintendent Runcie insists the program is only to prevent students from being jailed for “minor crimes”, [29] the agreement Mr. Runcie and Scott Israel created and signed does not require law enforcement to arrest students for felonies but instead says “officers may consider placing the student under arrest.” [30] In fact, the current discipline matrix doesn’t make “consultation to law enforcement” mandatory or serious crimes such as high-level assault, rape, and armed robbery. Instead, it lists it as one of many options at the discretion of the school administration. [27] A retired Deputy of the Broward Sheriff’s Office with decades of experience with the BSO and as a School Resource Officer told me (with verification but on the condition of anonymity) about an instance in which SROs were instructed not to arrest certain felonies. “About… let’s say two years ago, during a meeting with SROs at the Public Safety Building a woman with Broward Schools or the School Board came at the direction of Colonel Pollock, and we were instructed not to arrest for certain felonies in addition to the misdemeanors covered by Promise.” In a later conversation, the Deputy confirmed that the identity of that woman is Michaelle Pope, Executive Director of Student Support Initiatives Broward County Public Schools, who’s tasked with overseeing BCPS discipline. The program’s stats, presented by Superintendent Runcie himself, suggests that the Deputy’s claim is true. On the their own website, they use a 33% drop over a three year period in school-related felony arrest rates as an example of the program’s success. [31]

In 2014, while both misdemeanor and felony arrest rates plummeted, the school system began to violent and incarcerated students back into the school system as part of various “re-engagement” programs. One such program is the Behavior Intervention Program, the purpose of which is to help “acquire the necessary skills to enable them to optimally function in the traditional school setting.” According to the Broward School Services website, students convicted of serious crimes such as “rape, murder, attempted murder, sexual battery, or firearm related activity” are given the possibility of entering back into the traditional school system as part of the program. [32] One year after the implementation of the Promise Program, district officials were instructed to work with county prosecutors and judges to return incarcerated students back into traditional schools, a deviation from the typical policy of allowing incarcerated juveniles to continue to study in jail. Over the course of the next two years, nearly 1,000 incarcerated students were released and returned to their area schools. [33] On December 10th, 2014 at the 17th Judicial Circuit Juvenile Justice Circuit Advisory Board Meeting, Cassandra Evans, Broward County’s chief juvenile probation officer acknowledged the danger in this: “the department is aware that this population is highly at-risk of reoffending within the first 45-days.” [34]

The aforementioned veteran BSO Deputy and SRO had this to say about reintegration programs: “I’m sorry to say, but we all knew some sort of tragedy like this was going to happen in Broward. You can’t just stop arresting kids and send kids straight from juvie back into schools without expecting something like this. As officers, our hands were tied… the decisions were political ones, not well researched or backed by evidence, just follow the money. If they really wanted to know what worked, they would’ve asked us the officers.” As for the money trail, he points to the Promise Program. While no one can definitely say whether or not safety was sacrificed for federal dollars, we learned from federal records that the program was used as a factor when applying to receive a federal grant. Chief School Performance & Accountability Officer Valerie Wanza, who reports directly to the Superintendent, listed “the successful implementation of the PROMISE Program, the district’s systemic initiative to end the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline” as an example of Broward’s leadership in an application for a federal grant that Superintendent Robert Runcie filed and signed. [35] The Department of Education, run by Robert Runcie’s friend and former boss, Arne Duncan, approved the application and awarded Broward with a hefty $54.3 million as part of a Teacher Incentive Grant (TIF). [36]

Conclusion

Without knowing Superintendent Runcie’s motives for taking the actions he did, it’s nearly impossible to say why the money wasn’t spent and why such lax disciplinary policies were instituted. What is clear is that the Superintendent failed to take the appropriate security precautions. He has not at any point after the tragedy at MSD acknowledged the mismanagement of school safety funds, indicated any sort of intention to reform the way the Board functions or assumed any responsibility for the systematic failures that occurred in failing to properly deal with Nikolas Cruz. The actions and evidence described warrant an independent investigation into the conduct of the Board and Superintendent. In addition to this, the current discipline matrix and reform programs need be to reformed ensure that there is no tolerance for violent crimes in Broward County Schools.

*For the sake of transparency, it’s worth mentioning that a piece of the article the Superintendent called “fake” listed our previous findings of $4,673,508 spent, a less than 1% difference (in terms of budget spent) from the numbers that Florida TaxWatch confirmed. Even though statistically insignificant, a correction has been requested.

Sources

  1. http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/sources-crist-grand-jury-probing-broward-school-board-6440904
  2. http://miami.cbslocal.com/2011/02/20/state-grand-jury-blast-broward-school-incompetence-inefficiency-notter-btu-ethics/
  3. https://cbsmiami.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/state-grand-jury-report.pdf
  4. http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=2607
  5. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article205212554.html
  6. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/politics/political-pulse/os-school-funding-20180314-story.html
  7. https://www.local10.com/news/florida/broward/voters-approve-800-million-in-bonds-for-broward-public-schools-
  8. http://www.floridabulldog.org/2015/05/broward-school-board-backs-runcie-on-keeping-public-off-selection-committee/
  9. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article22724217.html
  10. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/education/fl-broward-school-bond-errors-delays-20170824-story.html
  11. http://www.floridabulldog.org/2015/03/broward-school-boards-budding-bid-rigging-scandal-takes-a-twist/
  12. Page 461 of PDF http://www.broward.k12.fl.us/boc/QuarterlyReports/FY18_Q2BOCReport.pdf#page=1
  13. Expenditure Summary (457), Financially Active Projects (463), Completed and Meets Standard Projects Summary Schedule (511). Remaining Projects (605): http://www.broward.k12.fl.us/boc/QuarterlyReports/FY18_Q2BOCReport.pdf#page=1
  14. https://twitter.com/RobertwRuncie/status/978891911439310848
  15. https://drive.google.com/file/d/19igi_BSsNwPjXtix7G_8XwDOket6btWS/view?usp=sharing
  16. http://www.foxnews.com/transcript/2018/02/23/report-four-deputies-took-cover-during-florida-shooting.html
  17. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/education/fl-sb-broward-bond-committee-report-20170227-story.htm
  18. https://blog.ed.gov/2011/07/ending-the-school-to-prison-pipeline/
  19. https://stateimpact.npr.org/florida/tag/race-to-the-top/
  20. “Integration into Federal Grant making” (Page 4) https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/appendix-3-overview.pdf
  21. https://ocrdata.ed.gov/Page?t=d&eid=31597&syk=7&pid=2269
  22. https://www.local10.com/news/florida/broward/broward-public-schools-selected-as-400m-grant-finalist
  23. Competitive Preference Priority Reviewer Comments (Page 27) https://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-district/2013/theschoolboardofbrowardcountyfl.pdf
  24. http://expulsions.heraldtribune.com/Chapter/4
  25. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/timeline-parkland-shooter-nikolas-cruz/?utm_term=.fd70d9699a74
  26. http://sunshinestatenews.com/story/progressive-promise-program-still-issue-making-parkland-tragedy
  27. Pages 73 and 74 (old matrix), and pages 87 and 89 (new matrix) https://www.browardprevention.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/SY-2016-Eliminating-School-to-Prison-Pipeline-rev-3-5-18-315pm.pdf
  28. http://www.margatenews.net/13059/312031/a/juvenile-school-arrests
  29. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/parkland/florida-school-shooting/fl-florida-school-shooting-runcie-interview-20180226-story.html
  30. Page 7, Step 7 https://www.browardprevention.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Fully-Executed-Collaborative-Agreement.pdf
  31. PDF Page 220, Document Page 219 https://www.browardprevention.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/SY-2016-Eliminating-School-to-Prison-Pipeline-rev-3-5-18-315pm.pdf
  32. Returning From Residential Juvenile Justice Programs (Page 5) http://browardstudentservices.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BIC_Handbook_2017_18.pdf
  33. https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2018/03/16/broward_countys_jail-to-classroom_pipeline.html
  34. Page 5 of Document under “Judge Williams” http://www.djj.state.fl.us/docs/17/17th-circuit-advisory-board-meeting-minutes--december-10-2014.docx?sfvrsn=6
  35. Page 103, Bullet 3 https://www2.ed.gov/programs/teacherincentive/fy16/broward.pdf
  36. http://browardschools.com/News-And-Events/News/BCPS-Awarded-$53-8-Million-Grant-from-the-U-S-Dep#.WrYZ-YjwaUm