Grand jury wants to remove school board members because of massacre

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — A Florida grand jury assembled after a 2018 school massacre has ordered Gov. Ron DeSantis recommended that four members of the Broward County school board be removed from office because he and the district administrators displayed “cheating, felony, misconduct, dereliction of duty and incompetence” in their handling of a campus safety program.

In the 122-page report released Friday, the panel recommended that DeSantis suspend board members Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson. A former member, Rosalind Osgood, was also targeted, but she has since been elected to the Florida Senate and has taken office.

Levinson, the chairman of the board, angrily criticized the report as a “political hatchet job” orchestrated by the governor.

“It’s dirty party politics. He should be ashamed of himself,” she said.

The grand jury began meeting 15 months after 14 students and three staff members were gunned down on February 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a suburb of Broward County. The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, pleaded guilty in October and is now on trial to decide whether he will be sentenced to death or life without parole.

Former Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie resigned last year after being charged with allegedly lying to the grand jury. He pleads innocent and awaits his trial. The district is the seventh largest in the country, with more than 270,000 students on 333 campuses and an annual budget of $4 billion.

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 were killed in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. They ran on platforms that promoted better campus security. Alhadeff, in particular, often disagreed with the targeted members, especially about Runcie’s conduct before his resignation.

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Stand with Parkland, the group representing most of the victims’ families, released a statement applauding the report, saying it “proves what we already suspected – acts of incompetence, negligence and cover-up and a school board (that) is not under eyes want to see the facts.” President Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the attack, called on DeSantis to remove the four members from the board.

The grand jury said the “uninformed or even misinformed decisions, incompetent management and lack of meaningful oversight” of Runcie and the accused board members led to massive cost overruns and delays in a school safety and education program launched in 2014 by provincial governments. voters was approved. report says the $1 billion program that was supposed to be completed in 2021 is now expected to cost $1.5 billion when it’s done in 2025 – the jury estimates “wishcasting”.

“This doubling of time and a cost increase of nearly 50 percent did not happen overnight,” the grand jury wrote. “It was a slow-cooking frog that was the result of years of mismanagement by multiple (district) officials whose mistakes were exacerbated by the Council, which… refused to hold (district) leadership to account.”

Levinson, who is not seeking re-election as her third four-year term expires at the end of the year, said the grand jury should focus on the cause of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, pointing to the victims’ parents who stood by DeSantis. when he announced his incorporation.

“It’s disgusting to have a grand jury on the backs of these families bait and switch,” she said. “Most of the report has nothing to do with Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”

Korn said in a statement that “While I respect the grand jury process, I stand on my record,” noting the district’s high success rate.

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The other accused school board members and Osgood did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails asking for comment Friday. Runcie did not answer a message left on his wife’s phone and his attorney did not immediately respond to an email asking for comment.

DeSantis fired former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel just after taking office in January 2019, saying Israel’s lack of leadership contributed to the Stoneman Douglas shooting. DeSantis is a Republican, but Broward is a Democratic stronghold by a 2-to-1 margin. If the governor suspends the board members, he appoints their replacements until the next seat election.

“We appreciate the work of the grand jury and are reviewing its findings and recommendations at this time,” said DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin.

Murray, like Levinson, is not seeking re-election in November, but Korn is. The term of Good will expire in 2024.

The grand jury report says the Broward school district appears to be more focused on how it is viewed in public than on actual performance.

“Broward County has produced a plethora of examples of an almost fanatical desire to control and use data to manipulate public perception, including that surrounding safety,” the grand jury wrote. Runcie and the accused board members “seem to be obsessed with the optics of each situation and control over public impressions of their activities.”

“The district produces training materials on ‘Building the Brand’ as if the district is all important while the students are just commodities and instructs employees to always consider how situations can influence the perception of the district as opposed to reality,” the district wrote. jury. .

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AP writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and David Fischer in Miami contributed to this report.

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