The unas­sum­ing change agent on Broward’s School Board

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion -

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.

AP

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.

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