By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Pointing to a scathing grand-jury report that focused heavily on the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland school, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday suspended four of the Broward County School Board’s nine members for “incompetence, neglect of duty and misuse of authority.”
The report recommended that the governor suspend board members Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray, Laurie Rich Levinson and former member Rosalind Osgood for their actions leading up to and following the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Osgood was elected to the Florida Senate in a March special election,
The report also recommended the removal of former district Superintendent Robert Runcie, who resigned last year amid a corruption probe.
The grand jury report, completed in April and released last week, said the targeted board members’ and Runcie’s “uninformed or even misinformed decisions, incompetent management and lack of meaningful oversight” resulted in cost overruns and delays in a $1 billion school-safety program approved by county voters in 2014. Increased costs for the program, which was supposed to be completed in 2021 but is now expected to be finalized in 2025, are expected to total $1.5 billion.
“Even four years after the events of February 14, 2018, the final report of the grand jury found that a safety-related alarm that could have possibly saved lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ‘was and is such a low priority that it remains uninstalled at multiple schools,’ and ‘students continue to be educated in unsafe, aging, decrepit, moldy buildings that were supposed to have been renovated years ago,’” DeSantis said in a news release announcing the suspensions. “These are inexcusable actions by school board members who have shown a pattern of emboldening unacceptable behavior, including fraud and mismanagement, across the district.”
The Florida Supreme Court empaneled the grand jury at the request of DeSantis in 2019, after former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and faculty members at the school.
According to the report, the grand jury examined a number of multimillion-dollar bond projects that school districts have undertaken for safety initiatives. The projects appeared to be “relatively timely and on-budget,” with the “notable exception” of Broward County schools, the report said.
“We believe that the only appropriate remedy is for the governor of the state of Florida to remove these members of the School Board of Broward County,” the report recommended, targeting the members who supported Runcie.
Korn’s suspension came after she narrowly topped three challengers in a primary election Tuesday. Korn, who received 30.6 percent of the vote, is headed to a runoff against Allen Zemen, who captured just under 30 percent.
When asked to comment on DeSantis’ actions Friday, a spokesman for the Broward County schools said the district had received the governor’s executive order suspending the officials.
“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,” John J. Sullivan said in an email.
The Republican governor now has appointed a majority of the members of the school board in one of the state’s most heavily Democratic counties. He named Torey Alston, Manual “Nandy” Serrano, Ryan Reiter, and Kevin Tynan on Friday to replace the ousted members.
Alston served in the DeSantis administration until the governor appointed him to the Broward County Commission last year.
Tynan is a former county Republican Party chairman who was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to the Broward school board in 2009. Tynan, who also served on the South Broward Hospital District, lost a 2010 school-board re-election bid to Good, who was suspended Friday. Crist was a Republican at the time of the 2009 appointment but is now the Democratic nominee to run against DeSantis in November.
Reiter is a former aide to state Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point.
Serrano is a member of the Florida Sports Foundation board of directors, and Reiter is director of government relations for Kaufman Lynn Construction.
DeSantis in May appointed Daniel Foganholi, a Coral Springs Republican who ran a losing bid for the state House, to fill a vacant seat on the nine-member Broward board.
Though the grand jury called for the suspensions, the announcement Friday came as DeSantis tries to reshape school boards across the state with more-conservative members.
In the run-up to this week’s primary elections, DeSantis released a slate of 30 endorsements of what he called “pro-parent” candidates for school boards. Nineteen of those candidates won races outright on Tuesday, and six advanced to the November general election.
The grand jury’s damning final report followed three interim reports calling for actions on such issues as school security and mental health.
In one of his first acts after taking office in 2019, DeSantis also suspended former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, alleging incompetence in the handling of mass shootings at the Parkland school and at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
The Senate, which has the authority to remove elected officials, formally stripped Israel of his sheriff’s post during an October 2019 special legislative session.
In Friday’s news release, DeSantis said it is his “duty to suspend people from office when there is clear evidence of incompetence, neglect of duty, misfeasance or malfeasance.”
“We are grateful to the members of the jury who have dedicated countless hours to the mission and we hope this suspension brings the Parkland community another step towards justice. This action is in the best interest of the residents and students of Broward County and all citizens of Florida,” he said.