Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suspended four members of the Broward County School Board after a grand jury recommended they be removed over alleged incompetence, neglect of duty, and misuse of authority.
DeSantis announced Friday the immediate suspensions of school board members Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson.
DeSantis said the move was made in response to a grand jury report released last week that recommended the school board members be suspended due to “deceit, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence.”
“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 statement. “This action is in the best interest of the residents and students of Broward County and all citizens of Florida.”
“There is no ‘fraud and deceit’ or ‘malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence’ on the part of the board,” Good said in part in a statement Friday. “These claims are used to retaliate and support the governor’s authoritarian dictator style of governance when one disagrees with his views.”
The grand jury began meeting 15 months after 14 students and three staff members were gunned down on Feb. 14. 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
A Florida grand jury empaneled after a 2018 school massacre has recommended that Gov. Ron DeSantis remove from office four members of the Broward County school board. NBC 6’s Kim Wynne reports
Former Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie resigned last year after he was indicted for allegedly lying to the grand jury. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. The district is the nation’s sixth-largest, with more than 270,000 students at 333 campuses, and an annual budget of $4 billion.
“What country is this? What Gov. DeSantis did is un-American and undemocratic,” Levinson, the board’s chairwoman, said in response to the ousting. “He doesn’t care about democracy and overturned the will of the voters. This is all about political retribution for not firing Superintendent Runcie.”
The school board has nine members, including two, Debra Hixon and Lori Alhadeff, who were elected after Hixon’s husband Chris and Alhadeff’s daughter Alyssa died in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. They ran on platforms promoting better campus security. Alhadeff, in particular, has frequently been at odds with the targeted members, particularly over Runcie’s performance before his resignation.
“Thank you, Gov. Ron DeSantis, for taking the finding from the grand jury report and holding the school board members accountable,” Alhadeff said.
Stand With Parkland president Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died in the massacre, also applauded the governor’s decision.
“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 sheer incompetence caused the mishandling of many of the aspects that led up to the tragic date that took the lives of so many at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” Montalto said in a statement.
The grand jury said that Runcie’s and the accused board members’ “uninformed or even misinformed decisions, incompetent management and lack of meaningful oversight” has led to massive cost overruns and delays in the SMART Program, a multimillion-dollar bond specifically solicited for school safety and renovation initiatives approved by county voters in 2014.
The report said the $1 billion program that was supposed to be completed in 2021 is now projected to cost $1.5 billion when it is finished in 2025 — estimates the jury called “wishcasting.”
The grand jury report said the Broward school district seems to be more focused on how it is viewed publicly than on actual accomplishment.
“Broward County has provided a cornucopia of examples of an almost fanatical desire to control data and use it to manipulate public perception, including that surrounding safety,” the grand jury wrote. Runcie and the accused board members “are seemingly obsessed with the optics of any situation and control of public impressions of their activities.”
“The District produces training materials on ‘Building the Brand’ as though the district were all important while its students were mere commodities and instructs employees to always consider how situations might affect the perception of the District as opposed to the reality,” the jury wrote.
After the report’s release last week, Levinson angrily slammed it as a “political hatchet job” orchestrated by the governor.
“It is nasty partisan politics. He should be ashamed of himself,” she said.
Levinson, who was not seeking reelection as her third four-year term expires at the end of the year, said the grand jury was supposed to focus on what caused the Stoneman Douglas shooting, pointing to the victims’ parents who stood with DeSantis when he announced its formation.
“It is disgusting that on the backs of these families to have a bait-and-switch grand jury,” she said. “The majority of the report has nothing to do with Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”
Korn, who ran for re-election this year and is heading for a runoff, said she was disappointed in the governor for putting “politics above education.”
“I am confident that our community will see past the headlines and soundbites and focus on my record, which stands on its own merits,” she said.
The Broward Teachers Union president also said this is an example of politics intruding into education.
“I think it is unfair to remove duly elected officials,” Anna Fusco said. “It says that the people don’t have their votes matter, and right now, when we’re in a re-election and it’s right before re-election, it’s really a travesty.”
Montalto denied allegations that the governor’s actions are political in his statement.
“Furthermore, we want to remind those claiming this is a political act, that school district elections are nonpartisan,” he wrote. “Gov. DeSantis’ actions are the legitimate use of governmental powers to hold elected leaders accountable. The grand jury investigation ran for nearly two years, hearing testimony from 150 individuals. The randomly selected 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.”
DeSantis appointed four people to replace the school board members, including former Broward County Commissioner Torey Alston, former Broward School Board member Kevin Tynan, Manual “Nandy” A. Serrano and Ryan Reiter.
The school board released a statement Friday after DeSantis issued the suspension order.
“Broward County Public Schools is in receipt of the Governor’s Executive Order 22-202. 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,” the statement read.