Robert Runcie

Some families of victims of the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas massacre and their supporters have been trying to get Broward County School District Superintendent Robert Runcie fired from his job since the tragedy occurred.

COURTESY OF BROWARD COUNTY SCHOOLS

 

FORT LAUDERDALE – Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie was arrested April 22 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and charged with a single count of perjury in an official proceeding, a third-degree felony in Florida punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Here’s a paraphrased summary of the single charge:

...Defendant ROBERT W. RUNCIE, while testifying under oath in an official proceeding, to wit, the Twentieth Statewide Grand Jury... did make a false statement which ROBERT W. RUNCIE did not believe to be true, in regard to a material matter...in violation of...the Florida Statutes.

The single false statement allegedly occurred during a two-day, 18-hour interrogation of Runcie by the grand jury on March 31 and April 1, according to court pleadings filed by Runcie’s attorneys.

Continuing conflict

Runcie’s indictment is the latest battle in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (MDS) High School killing in Parkland, a Broward County suburb.

On that day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former MSD student, opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others before fleeing the scene on foot by blending in with other students.

Community split

Multiple subsequent investigations split much of Broward County into camps, particularly with regard to the professional fate of Runcie, who was the Broward County superintendent on that tragic day.

On one side are many of the MSD parents; their sympathizers and supporters, many in law enforcement around the state; and Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis.

The most hostile Runcie critics hold him personally accountable for the massacre. They have also criticized the Broward school board members for alleged delays in making state-required security changes under Runcie’s leadership, and the district’s alleged failure to administer an $800 million bond issue designed to substantially improve Broward County schools.

All of those issues are the subject of the statewide grand jury investigation that indicted Runcie.

Pro-Runcie support

On the other side are Runcie, who has refused to resign and has survived multiple attempts to fire him and a still-supportive majority of the Broward County School Board.

He also has energetic supporters in South Florida, many of whom are Black, including a substantial and politically powerful Afro-Caribbean community that feels a sense of kinship.

Runcie was born in Jamaica into an impoverished family before emigrating to the United States. A Harvard University graduate, he was the first member of his family to attend college.

Protests underway

On April 23, Black elected politicians, leaders of organizations including a local NAACP branch and the local Urban League chapter, and small local business owners held a press conference in front of the Broward Public Schools administrative building to publicly support Runcie. A public rally in his support is also being planned.

Supporters believe that Runcie is a scapegoat who became the personal focus of the anger and frustration of MSD parents and their supporters immediately after the tragedy. Their argument is that Runcie is blamed for the decades-long institutional structures and procedures in place that failed on the day of the MSD murders.

Multiple investigations support their argument. Investigators place responsibility for the tragedy solely on Cruz, the shooter. However, lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies, first responders and Broward schools; incompetence; poor planning; confusion; lack of training; individual cowardice and other factors were cited as major contributing causes to the tragedy.

Quiet role model

Runcie’s supporters have praised him for increasing Broward County’s graduation rate and generally improving schools throughout the district.

Black parents particularly see him as a role model for their children. Runcie often shows up unannounced at school events, large and small, and is seen as accessible and easygoing. Many Black students know him by sight.

He also has been responsive to other issues of concern to Black parents, including setting up pro- grams preventing criminalization and disproportionate punishment of Black students.

Not afraid of charters

Also, Runcie has weighed in on charter schools. Florida’s teachers’ unions and their substantial Black membership consider charters as a Republican-led existential threat to public schools with the long-term goal of putting the education of Florida’s children in the hands of large corporations.

They resent the fact that that charter schools are substantially funded with public dollars and are not subject to the same legal and financial scrutiny, regulations, and standardized testing and academic standards as public schools.

However, many of Florida’s larger Black churches have established charter schools focused on religious and Black cultural education. Also, Black low-income parents have used school choice vouchers to transfer their kids from poorly performing public schools to higher-performing charter schools, taking state education money allotted to their children with them.

The voucher program is especially popular in families with children headed by single Black women. Such Broward County families strongly support Runcie, who was one of the few Florida school superintendents to initiate and support a years-long statewide effort for Florida’s school districts and the charter school community to work together.

‘High character’

Runcie has retained Johnny L. McCray, Jr. of Pompano Beach as co-counsel of his criminal defense team. McCray sees the indictment as retaliation.

“I am confident when the dust settles, that he (Runcie) will be acquitted of this charge,” McCray said in an exclusive interview with the Florida Courier. “He’s a man of high character.

“This indictment is an attempt to besmirch Mr. Runcie’s reputation and destroy his career because the majority of Broward County school board members still support him.”

Grand jury system

In Florida, a statewide grand jury consists of a minimum of 12 citizens appointed by the Florida Supreme Court. Grand juries have the power to investigate, report and file criminal charges in a document called a “Bill of Indictment.”

Grand jurors hear witnesses and other evidence usually presented only by prosecutors. Very rarely does a grand jury hear both sides of a case. After the presentation of evidence, grand jurors vote to determine whether crimes have been committed and then identify defendants who should be brought to trial for criminal violations.

Grand juries proceed in secret. Under Florida law, the grand jury sessions, deliberations, and voting are closed to the public and to the press.

Grand jury ‘sham’

McCray immediately took aim at the legal process.

“There’s a saying in criminal law that ‘A grand jury and a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich,’" McCray challenged. “Regular citizens serving on grand jury often go along with prosecutors who point them to an outcome that’s already pre-determined. That’s what happened here.

“Look at the three purposes for which this statewide grand jury was formed. All of them exactly track the complaints that MSD parents have had about Mr. Runcie. They mention words like ‘fraud’ and ‘incompetence’ before any investigation was completed.

“This grand jury proceeding was not searching for the truth about what’s happening with construction projects, the bond issue, the MSD murders, or anything else in the Broward County schools. It’s all about one thing: Running Robert Runcie out of the Broward County school district by any means necessary,” McCray declared.

DeSantis’ hidden hand?

“It’s interesting that the single criminal charge was filed in Tallahassee, the state capital. It wasn’t filed by the independent local prosecutor in Broward County, where Mr. Runcie works and lives. And there were no charges filed against him as a consequence of a previous Broward Sheriff ’s Office investigation.

“My client was charged after an investigation involving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is essentially controlled by Gov. [Ron] DeSantis, who would fire Mr. Runcie and remove his supporters on the Broward County School Board if he could,” McCray explained.

“But the governor knows he can’t legally terminate Mr. Runcie or the school board. As a former federal prosecutor, DeSantis knows exactly how the grand jury system works. That’s why he’s using it in Tallahassee. He knows it’s all he can do. It’s his last legal resort.”

Can’t even respond

McCray said that the single felony was too vague for the defense team to even respond.

“We immediately filed a motion to dismiss the indictment because it gives Mr. Runcie no notice as to the crime he allegedly committed,” McCray said. “If the judge doesn’t dismiss the case, we also alternatively filed for a bill of particulars to make the state identify exactly the ‘false material statement’ he allegedly made,” McCray explained.

Splitting Broward Democrats

McCray also sees politics at work.

“Whether DeSantis runs for re-election in 2022 or for president in 2024, he needs to split Broward County’s overwhelmingly Democratic voters in order to win statewide. He’s cynically using the MSD tragedy to sow dissention and a split between Parkland voters – a number of whom are Jewish Democrats who otherwise wouldn’t support him – and Runcie supporters who are Black Democrats.

“It’s disgraceful.”

Parkland and Broward County

A statistical look at the economics, race and politics of Broward County shows the stark differences between Runcie’s opponents and supporters.

According to University of Florida statistics, Parkland is a relatively small city of approximately 35,000 people that is growing rapidly. U.S. Census data from 2013-2017 indicates that more than 73 percent of Parkland’s citizens are White; 13 percent are Hispanic; 6.5 percent are Black; and 6 percent are Asian.

The median income of Parkland households is more than $131,000, by far the highest in Broward County. Only 3 percent of Parkland’s population lives in poverty. That’s compared to Broward County’s median household income of $59,000, and where 14 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty.

The median value of a Parkland home is more than $548,000. That’s double the median value of homes in the rest of Broward County.

The political calculation

McCray says DeSantis’ motive for alleged maneuvering to indict Runcie using law enforcement tools under the governor’s control is all about winning Florida’s statewide elections. Here’s where he has a point.

Florida Democrats have lost six consecutive gubernatorial campaigns covering 24 years, many by razor-thin margins. The last Democratic governor in Florida was Lawton Chiles, who won a close re-election campaign against a young Jeb Bush in 1994 by ½ of one percent – about 64,000 votes out of 4.2 million cast.

Over those 24 years, Republicans have won Florida governor’s races by 10.6 percent in 1998, 13.2 percent in 2002, 7.1 percent in 2006, 1.2 percent in 2010, and 1 percent in 2014. In 2018, current Florida Governor DeSantis beat Democrat Andrew Gillum by four-tenths of 1 percent – about 32,000 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast.

On the presidential side, Democrats have fared much better, winning five of the last seven presidential elections. And because Florida generally has 10 percent of the Electoral College votes that determines the presidency, it’s almost a national political rule that whoever wins Florida wins the presidency.

Same strategy

For more than three decades, Democrats have tried to win Florida statewide elections only one way: run up the number of Democratic votes overwhelmingly in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties; try to be competitive in the I-4 corridor including St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach; and hang on while the Republicans win the rest of the state.

Democrats can’t win a statewide or presidential campaign without winning Broward County by massive margins. Anyone paying minimal attention to Florida politics knows that. That’s why McCray’s accusation isn’t far-fetched.

DeSantis could use the MSD murders as a possible political “wedge” issue to split off a relatively few Democratic votes in a small, reliably Democratic Broward County city. His efforts could take campaign contributions, public campaign supports and crucial votes from a county Democrats must win by crushing margins to have a chance at winning any statewide election, including a DeSantis run for re-election in 2022 or for the presidency in 2024.

About Robert Runcie

Runcie holds both a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Harvard College and Master of Business Administration degree in Management from Northwestern University.

He founded a management consulting and technology company before making a switch into education by working with Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the nation with 410,000 students.

In Chicago, he served in a number of executive positions, including chief information officer, chief administrative officer, chief area officer, and chief of staff to the Chicago Board of Education.

He joined Broward County Public Schools in 2011, has been named superintendent of the year by various organizations, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Nova Southeastern University for his work in education.

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