May 10, 2021

The record of Superintendent Robert Runcie: Accomplishments and exaggerations

To his many ardent supporters, Superintendent Robert Runcie is a leader who has transformed the Broward School District, cleaning up a corrupt organization, stabilizing finances and boosting student achievement.

Their claims are not entirely true.

Assertions by Runcie’s supporters — Black religious leaders, elected officials and people of all races in business and nonprofit communities — are sometimes accurate, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes outright false.

The praise has come to the forefront in the past week after Runcie was charged with a felony that accuses him of lying to a statewide grand jury. He has offered to leave his job, and the School Board is negotiating his dismissal after nearly 10 years.

The criminal charge did not deter his supporters. They showed up at School Board meetings and organized a rally to plead for him to remain as superintendent. Supporters cast Runcie as a political scapegoat for the Parkland school shooting whose accomplishments were ignored.

Here’s a look back at Runcie’s tenure and the assertions of people who remain in his corner.

Since Runcie arrived, the number of D and F schools have plummeted.

Runcie’s supporters often repeat the falsehood that Broward had numerous D and F schools when he arrived in 2011.

“There were 50 D and F schools when he got here. Today we have 69 A schools, 54 B schools and zero F schools. That’s the kind of work he’s done,” Commissioner Dale Holness said at a rally for Runcie on April 23.

In reality, there were nine D and no F district-run schools in 2011. In the 2019 school grades, the most recent available, there were eight D and no F schools, a decrease of one. While Holness correctly said Broward had 69 A’s, that’s down from 130 in 2011.

Bob Swindell, CEO of the Fort Lauderdale Alliance, made similar claims in 2019. After the South Florida Sun Sentinel pointed out the numbers were false, Chief Communications Officer Kathy Koch acknowledged she had sent Swindell comparison data from 2013, nearly two years after Runcie had started, rather than 2011.

The state switched to a more difficult test in 2015, and the number of A’s have dropped statewide.

Broward schools’ have the highest graduation rates ever.

Broward County posted an 89.4% graduation rate during the 2019-20 school year, which is its highest rate at least in recent decades. But most other school districts in the state also improved.

Broward’s rate is still slightly lower than the state’s graduation rate of 90%, as well as all large districts in the state except Hillsborough County.

This year’s numbers may be artificially high due to COVID-19. Students who had yet to pass a state-required graduation test were able to still graduate in 2020 since makeup tests weren’t being offered.

Two years ago, the district issued a press release saying graduation rates were 95%. They calculated the figure in part by omitting charter schools and district-run alternative schools. The School Board required that the district count alternative schools in future reports, after the Sun Sentinel raised questions.

Runcie won over a business community unhappy with the school district.

There’s no doubt business groups, like the Fort Lauderdale Alliance and the Broward Workshop, are strong Runcie supporters. They say he helped turn around a district in turmoil.

“We saw him take over the school system that was not run well, and he’s done a consistently good job,” said Keith Koenig, president of the Broward Workshop and CEO of City Furniture.

However, the same groups also defended the previous two superintendents, Jim Notter and Frank Till, and fought against efforts to oust them.

Weeks before Notter stepped down in 2011 after a scathing grand jury report, business leaders turned out at a School Board meeting to support him.

“I absolutely am thrilled about the partnership we have right now. I look forward to continuing it under the superintendent’s leadership.” Steve Hickman, who was then vice chairman of the Fort Lauderdale Alliance, said at the time.

Far more students have access to technology today.

The number of student computers has dramatically increased since voters approved the 2014 bond referendum. District officials say there were six students for every computer in 2014, and now it’s nearly a 1 to 1 ratio. Over 100,000 students have take-home computers due to the focus on online learning during the pandemic.

But the district’s technology purchases have been wrought with problems.

Teachers, students and School Board members have complained that the district’s laptop of choice, Lenovo, worked poorly. They said the touchpads don’t respond, keys fall off, and the computers crash when multiple windows are opened. The computers were dubbed “Le No No’s.”

A recent audit confirmed those complaints.

The district’s Lenovo laptops “prove not to hold their initial quality several months after actual usage by the students and teachers,” accounting firm HCT wrote. “The hard drive failures did not follow the traditional 2- to 3-year life span. The evidence of over 10,000 support tickets adds more credence to the notion of [Broward Schools] procuring more robust equipment going forward.”

The purchase of Lenovo computers was pushed by Tony Hunter, former chief information officer who was arrested on charges of bid rigging and bribery related to another technology purchase, Recordex interactive flat panel TV’s for libraries and classrooms.

The Recordex deal led to the arrests of Runcie, who was accused of lying to a statewide grand jury about it, and General Counsel Barbara Myrick, accused of illegally sharing information from the grand jury related to the case.

Runcie has reduced the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline.

A diversion program, called the Promise program, started with great hope in 2013 to reduce arrests. At the time, Broward had the highest number of students arrested in the state.

Promise allowed students who committed nonviolent misdemeanors to attend a special school to avoid jail. Supporters claimed it achieved a 90% success rate in stopping repeat offenders.

But the program has come under major scrutiny since the Parkland shooting, especially after Runcie falsely said the killer never participated in the program.

In 2018, the Sun Sentinel debunked the 90% success claim. In order to be considered a repeat offender, a student had to commit the exact same crime in the exact same year. Every school year, the clock started over. The district later overhauled the program to limit participation to three times in a student’s K-12 education.

The future of the program is unclear, especially with Runcie leaving. District officials rarely mention the program anymore. A commission investigating the Parkland shooting said it duplicates civil citation programs provided by local law enforcement

Runcie inherited a problem with class size penalties and fixed it.

That is true. In 2011, the school district laid off 1,400 teachers and failed to plan adequately to ensure the district met requirements of a class size law that limits core classes in early elementary classes to 18 students, middle grades to 22 and high schools to 25.

Runcie inherited a pending $66 million penalty from the state, which he successfully negotiated down to $8.6 million by issuing a plan to correct the problems. The fine was down to $1.3 million the next year, and since then the district has had no significant penalties.

Runcie’s leadership led to two successful referendums to fund schools.

In 2014, nearly three-quarters of Broward voters approved an $800 million bond referendum to fix decaying schools. In 2018, about 64% of voters approved a referendum for teacher raises and safety and security enhancements.

Runcie lobbied government officials, business leaders, parent groups and others to garner support for these efforts.

While the district has made good on the promises in the 2018 referendum, it’s failed to deliver in its pledge to renovate schools. All 236 schools were supposed to be finished this year, but only 22 are complete. The program is more than $500 million over budget, and the program has been a focus of the statewide grand jury investigation.

Broward Schools have expanded speech and debate into the largest program in the country.

True. Runcie and School Board member Laurie Rich Levinson made a big push to expand forensics programs. Only 12 high schools had it 2012, but by 2014, that was up to all 34 traditional high schools. It was later expanded to all middle schools and some elementary schools. The district has secured hundreds of thousands in grants to support this effort.

Some Parkland students who pushed for gun control and school safety after the 2018 shooting credit the strong debate program for giving them the skills to advocate effectively.

Under Runcie, the district has made major strides toward inclusion for LGBTQ students and staff.

There’s no doubt that Runcie and the School Board have been pro-LGBTQ. The district was one of the first in the nation to issue a proclamation supporting LGBT history month in 2012. LGBTQ issues are regularly featured in diversity programs, and Runcie, School Board members and district administrators have participated in Pride parades.

LGBTQ advocates say it’s a stark contrast from the decade before Runcie when a previous superintendent rejected a video about tolerance and the School Board dropped its partnership with a gay education group, due to complaints from anti-gay opponents.

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