The unassuming change agent on Broward’s School Board
Controlling the conversation
To understand how broken the Broward County School Board is — and why the appointment of a statewide grand jury is badly needed — look no further than Tuesday’s special board meeting, which was called to hire a new district security chief a year after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
As backdrop, know that this board is deeply divided over whether Superintendent Robert Runcie bears any blame for the safety failures that allowed an unhinged former student with a record of violence to stride onto the school’s campus with an AR-15 and shoot 34 people, killing 17.
Frankly, some board members want to focus less on Parkland, and more on education, believing the district doesn’t get the credit it deserves for all its good work. What these members fail to recognize is that until they get it right, Parkland is all that matters. For behind Parkland is every other school that must be prepared for a mass shooting. These incidents have happened more than 40 times in the 20 years since Columbine, and they’re going to happen again. School grades matter not a lick if kids don’t make it home at night.
Rather new to the nine-member board is Lori Alhadeff, whose pretty and athletic daughter, Alyssa, 14, was shot ten times at Stoneman Douglas. Alhadeff was a stay-athome soccer mom before that dark day. She ran for election to the school board because she says Alyssa would have wanted her to help solve the problems exposed on 2-14.
Figuring it out alone
The transition hasn’t been easy and Alhadeff ’s arrival on the school board has hardly been helped by Runcie, whom she’s come to believe should be removed and replaced. It’s easy to get the impression that this grieving mother is being treated differently, and not in a good way.
Consider, for example, the selection of her secretary. Alhadeff wanted to hire former accountant and college instructor Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, but was blocked by Runcie and General Counsel Barbara Myrick, who said she lacked the needed secretarial skills.
The district could have used its discretion to translate Lynch-Walsh’s MBA, doctorate and work experience into the skills outlined in a secretary’s job description. After all, as the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Scott Travis has reported, two other board secretaries have been hired without meeting the minimum qualifications.
The difference is that Lynch-Walsh is a member of the district’s Facilities Task Force and an informed critic of the delays and cost overruns associated with the $800 million bond Runcie pushed in 2014 to renovate decaying schools.
“I met Natalie before I was on the school board and I felt that she was so knowledgeable of the ins-and-outs of the school district that she would make me so highly effective,” Alhadeff told us.
Alhadeff has now gone three months without a secretary, left to figure things out by herself. Aside from training on legal and ethical rules, she said she’s been offered no “onboarding” for how the district works.
A board member should be able to hire the secretary of their choosing. The Florida Legislature should make it so.
More barriers in her way
Hiring a secretary was just the first obstacle Alhadeff faced. She’s also had difficulty putting her ideas on the school board’s agenda.
For example, she wanted the board to consider holding town hall meetings in each of the nine districts. But when the agenda came out, her item wasn’t there.
Myrick explained that if Alhadeff wanted the board to vote on an item, it must include a recommendation from Runcie. But Alhadeff ’s item hadn’t even made the agenda as a discussion item. Runcie said he didn’t include it because he was already planning some meetings.
Fellow board member Robin Bartleman challenged Myrick, saying at least seven counties allow school board members to bring issues for a vote without the superintendent’s approval.
“What’s the big deal?” Alhadeff asks, about letting board members add an item to the agenda. “People either vote yes or they vote no. That’s it.”
If only it could be so simple. Allowing board members to help set the board’s agenda is another issue the Florida Legislature should address.
After Runcie agreed to hold his first public meeting with Parkland parents last month, he cancelled it, citing unspecified
threats from protestors. Instead, he scheduled four private meetings for those with students in each of the high school’s four grades.
To keep the public out and still comply with the Sunshine Law, the district told board members they could attend the meeting, but only one could speak. The others could not respond to parents finally given their say.
After the Sun Sentinel challenged the matter in court, the district said only one school board member could attend, which really bothered Alhadeff, who wanted her colleagues to hear from Parkland parents. Runcie’s rules made it impossible for that to happen.
“I think the superintendent was trying to control the conversation,” Alhadeff rightly said.
It only gets worse.
The district then scheduled one of the town halls on Alhadeff ’s birthday, one on the night of a school board meeting and one on the day of her daughter’s yahrzeit, which is a Jewish ceremony that recognizes the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
Bartleman was incredulous that Runcie’s staff failed to consider her colleague’s schedule in organizing the meetings. We share her assessment that Runcie’s staff treated Alhadeff “like crap.”
Then, board member Rosalind Osgood, a Runcie supporter, accused Alhadeff and Bartleman of violating the Sunshine Law for having discussed the need for a public meeting in Parkland. However, the two had held their discussion during a public meeting of the Stoneman Douglas School Advisory Council, which was attended by our reporter. Osgood owes her colleagues an apology.
Big jobs, big raises, missing qualifications
The deteriorating dynamics — and the reason for public concern — became even more clear last month when Runcie recommended three administrators be promoted to the key jobs of district facilities chief, police chief and chief information officer.
However, two of the administrators failed to meet the minimum requirements for the jobs, which come with pay raises of 20 to 28 percent. But because Runcie proposed giving them these jobs on a “task assign” or temporary basis, it wasn’t required that they meet the board-approved job descriptions.
“Barbara Myrick told the board we can’t vote ‘no’ on the superintendent’s recommendations,” Alhadeff told us. “For me, it’s very frustrating. Why are you bringing it forward to me if I can’t vote no on it?
“She’s supposed to be the school board’s attorney, not the superintendent’s.”
Rushing a most-important hire
The situation took another stunning turn last Tuesday, when Runcie scheduled a special meeting to recommend that Brian Katz, the CEO of a Fort Lauderdale security firm, become the district’s new safety chief. It’s not clear why a special meeting was needed for the one-item agenda, which was posted late the previous Friday.
Alhadeff wanted to see more information. She was given back-up material that included a recommendation from the U.S. State Department, where Katz had worked from 2004 to 2010. But where asked to rank the candidate as excellent, very good or whatever, she said the boxes were all left
blank. “If they’re recommending this candidate, why didn’t they check it off?”
Alhadeff asked that the vote be delayed a week. This is a serious decision, after all, and other interesting and qualified candidates had not been interviewed. Plus, the last time Runcie rushed the appointment of a district security chief, it didn’t work out so well.
It happened last June, when Runcie gave the job to April Schentrup, the grieving principal of Pembroke Pines Elementary, who had lost her beautiful daughter, Carmen, at Stoneman Douglas. Three months after the shooting, Schentrup showed up at a school board meeting to say she’d been docked vacation time to grieve, she’d not heard a word of sympathy from the school board and she’d not yet seen a single person held accountable for the district’s many security failures.
Schentrup recently told Politico the job was a “fake role,” designed to placate her. Among other things, she said she was excluded from the discussion of new security guidelines and plans. She was told a list of schools without a single point of entry didn’t exist and she’d have to find them for herself. And she was excluded from a decision to hire a school safety consulting firm. Her experience is yet another reason to question Runcie’s leadership.
Board members Nora Rupert and Bartleman supported Alhadeff ’s call for a week’s delay, but Runcie’s supporters wanted an immediate decision. “I hear about a lack of urgency every day from certain people in the community,” board member Laurie Rich Levinson said. “To ask to delay is incomprehensible. We need to get this moving. This gentleman has outstanding credentials.”
An interrogation like no other
When the vote was called, Alhadeff voted no. What followed was an inglorious moment in School Board history.
Prodded by board member Patti Good, Myrick told Alhadeff that any board member who votes against a superintendent’s recommendation must state a valid reason for doing so and it couldn’t just be an opinion, but factual information based on “good cause.”
Alhadeff — who, again, is working without a secretary and without any real training or support — held her own. She said she voted no because three qualified candidates were not interviewed for the job, because the State Department’s recommendation was incomplete and because the district’s security consultant, Safe Havens, had not been included in the interview process and had not given its recommendation as the board wanted.
Myrick then moved from lawyer, to judge and jury.
“Unfortunately, none of those meet the qualifications of ‘good cause,’ which only have to do with the individual person who is being nominated, which are again that his moral disqualification or professional disqualification. None of your reasons addressed the individual who was being nominated today.”
Really? An individual’s incomplete recommendation has nothing to do with assessing his professional qualifications? And a board member cannot question the selection process? What kind of oversight is that?
Never have we seen a general counsel interrogate a school board member in a manner so grossly out of line.
When advising the board on the two candidates who lacked the qualifications for important jobs, Myrick said that if members rejected the superintendent’s recommendation, they would have to give a reason. But if a single board member voted ‘no,’ no such explanation was needed.
In grilling Alhadeff this past week, Myrick, who didn’t respond to our requests for an interview, said just the opposite.
And, come on, board members have voted against Runcie’s recommendations plenty of times without getting the fifth degree.
So what now? Does Myrick believe Alhadeff can be personally sued for her measured vote? Will she report Alhadeff to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran? Will she report her to the state ethics commission?
Florida lawmakers, do you see the chilling effect taking place here? How can a school board member do his or her job when they’re told they can be personally sued if they reject a superintendent’s recommendation?
The statewide grand jury needs to revisit the laws — or the interpretation of laws — meant to let school boards govern effectively.
And rather than spending so much time telling Alhadeff what she can’t do, wouldn’t it be better for a superintendent and general counsel to help board members provide the leadership they’ve been elected to do?
Cozy bonds during elections
Finally, on school board governance, another recent revelation deserves a thorough vetting by the grand jury, if impaneled, otherwise by State Attorney Mike Satz.
That is, the attendance of a school board consultant who works at district headquarters — and whose job is to help recruit minority-owned businesses to work with the district — at a fundraiser for three candidates, including Alhadeff ’s opponent and incumbent member Donna Korn.
Was it pure coincidence that this recruiter attended a fundraiser for candidates who support Runcie? Was there any suggestion that if you support these candidates, you might land a contract with the district? The optics sure look bad. The grand jury should investigate possible influence peddling in the awarding of such contracts.
And while they’re at it, state lawmakers should make it illegal for school superintendents to help school board members win election. If successful, how can they possibly hold him accountable for any missteps? They owe him. It’s a conflict of interest, pure and simple.
Her quiet, confident mission
Alhadeff isn’t a woman of many words. But don’t mistake her shyness for a lack of confidence. She’s stepped into her new role in a professional manner, seeking a professional relationship with other school board members.
“I have a lot of friends. I don’t need them to be my friends. They’re my professional colleagues. I have thick skin and I’m just going to try my best to make change, do the right things and make the right decisions.
“I’m optimistic with this grand jury investigation that the truth will come out, and we’ll have accountability.” Alhadeff has already made a difference. She’s helped us see that Broward’s School Board is trending toward a rubber stamp, which hardly meets the definition of good governance.
She’s helped us see that the rules and laws that need to be re-evaluated.
She’s helped us see how Runcie and Myrick treat board members like subordinates, when they work for them.
The statewide grand jury that Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed Wednesday should not only investigate safety and spending decisions, but the barriers to proper school board oversight.
A previous statewide grand jury found Broward’s School Board had gotten too involved in day-to-day decisions, which led to corruption. But the pendulum has swung too far the other way, raising the specter of another kind of corruption.
A reset is needed in the balance of power between Florida school boards and the people they are meant to supervise — for the sake of the public they are all meant to serve. Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, David Lyons and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.
Lori Alhadeff, who lost her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is making a difference on the Broward School Board. But Florida lawmakers need to address the obstacles being placed in her way.