DeSantis Suspends 4 Elected School Board Members After Report on Parkland
MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida suspended four elected members of the Broward County school board on Friday, following the recommendation of a grand jury impaneled to look into school safety and other issues after the mass school shooting in Parkland that left 17 people dead in 2018.
In its report, which was released last week, the grand jury found that the four school board members — and a fifth one who no longer holds that position — had “engaged in acts of incompetence and neglect of duty,” in part for what the grand jury described as mismanagement of an $800 million bond issue approved by voters in 2014 that was intended to renovate schools and make them safer.
Mr. DeSantis suspended Patricia Good, Donna P. Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson from the board. Though all nine school board seats are nonpartisan, all four are registered Democrats, which is not unusual in liberal Broward County. Ms. Korn was on the ballot on Tuesday and had made it into a runoff for the November election.
The fifth person recommended for removal from office in the report, Rosalind Osgood, who is also a Democrat, was elected to the State Senate in a special election this year.
Ms. Levinson, hours after being removed from the board she had served for 12 years, declined to comment about the specific accusations in the report, but said they were pretext for “political retribution.” She said that all the suspended board members had won elections since the shooting.
“What country is this?” Ms. Levinson, formerly the board chairwoman, said in an interview Friday. “What Governor DeSantis did is un-American and undemocratic. He doesn’t care about democracy and he overturned the will of the voters.”
She added that Mr. DeSantis “impaneled this grand jury under the guise of school safety as a pretext to remove school board members who did not fire the former superintendent.”
In the tumultuous year after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a state commission found failures in the police response to the massacre. As a result, Mr. DeSantis suspended the elected sheriff in Broward County, Scott Israel, shortly after being sworn in as governor in 2019.
But Mr. DeSantis resisted calls to suspend the superintendent of the school district at the time, Robert W. Runcie. Instead, the governor asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel the grand jury. It was charged with investigating possible wrongdoing in school districts statewide, including if refusal or failure to follow school safety laws put students at risk; if districts have committed fraud by accepting state funds conditioned on safety measures without putting them into place; and if districts have diverted for other purposes funds from bonds designated for school safety.
The grand jury completed its report in April 2021, but it was kept under seal while the school board members named in it fought its release. Last week, the state Supreme Court declined the board members’ final appeal to have their names redacted from the report, and it was made public.
As it happened, the report’s publication coincided with the sentencing trial of the gunman in the shooting, Nikolas Cruz, who faces sentencing of death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. His defense team began presenting its side of the case on Monday.
In the years since the shooting, two family members of people who were killed have been elected to the school board: Lori Alhadeff, who lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was elected in 2018, and Debra Hixon, who lost her husband, Chris, the school’s athletic director, was elected in 2020. The grand jury found that Ms. Alhadeff, Ms. Hixon and two other board member had either performed their duties better or not been on the board long enough to be responsible for the district’s failings.
This month, Mr. DeSantis drew national headlines for suspending from office Andrew H. Warren, the elected Democratic top prosecutor in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is, for vowing not to prosecute those who seek or provide abortions. That suspension, which Mr. Warren is contesting in court, shocked political observers in the state because it was not preceded by criminal charges, as suspensions of elected officials had been in the past.
In contrast, Mr. DeSantis’s action on Friday to suspend the Broward County school board members was not unexpected because of the recommendation in the grand jury report.
The governor also appointed four Republicans to replace the suspended board members. He now has named five Republicans to the board, after appointing a member in April to fill Ms. Osgood’s former seat. The board has now shifted from being run by nine Democratic women to having a majority of Republican men. Electing conservatives to school boards has been one of Mr. DeSantis’s priorities this year, as cultural battles in education have become key to G.O.P. political campaigns.
The grand jury’s investigation has had other repercussions. Last year, Mr. Runcie, the superintendent, was charged with perjury, a felony, for lying to the grand jury. The school district’s general counsel, Barbara J. Myrick, was charged with unlawful disclosure of statewide grand jury proceedings, which is also a felony. Both have pleaded not guilty, and their trials are pending. Mr. Runcie stepped down in August of 2021.
Vimal Patel contributed reporting.