The head of the Florida school district that saw the nation’s deadliest high school shooting is standing down amid a secretive corruption inquiry and competing claims that his downfall was orchestrated by political foes who blame him for the loss of 17 lives.
Robert Runcie, superintendent of the Broward school district for nine years, confirmed his resignation on Thursday, just over three years after a former student killed 14 teenagers and three staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school (MSD) in Parkland.
Runcie, 59, was arrested on a felony perjury charge a week ago, accused of lying to a grand jury that was ordered by Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, to investigate the 14 February 2018 mass shooting.
The panel later widened its inquiry into school safety issues and alleged mismanagement of hundreds of millions of dollars of district funds.
Runcie has pleaded not guilty and earlier this week announced his intention to stay on, in a video message sent to parents and employees of the country’s sixth-largest school district.
“I am confident that I will be vindicated, and I intend to continue to carry out my responsibilities as superintendent with the highest degree of integrity and moral standards as I have done for nearly 10 years,” he said.
But a special meeting of the nine-member Broward school board, which includes two relatives of Parkland shooting victims, elected after the shooting, discussed suspending or firing Runcie on Tuesday.
Having lost the confidence of the board, Runcie announced he would stand down from his $356,000-a-year position.
Also resigning is the district’s long-serving legal counsel, Barbara Myrick, 72, who was indicted on a felony charge of unlawful disclosure of grand jury proceedings, which she denies.
“I know you’ve been in enormous amounts of pain that none of us can ever imagine,” Runcie told Lori Alhadeff, a board member whose daughter, Alyssa, 14, was killed at her school.
“I guess I’m part of the source of that in some ways. If it’s going to give you the peace you’re looking for, I will step aside,” he added.
His words were condemned by Alhadeff’s fellow board member, Debra Hixon, whose husband, Chris, was the MSD athletic director.
“To drop that on Lori’s lap and say, ‘I am sacrificing myself for you’ was so disingenuous and disrespectful to those of us that lost people on February 14 ,” she told ABC10 news.
Alhadeff was one of Runcie’s most vocal critics on the board, and several of the Parkland families blame him for creating the conditions that they believe allowed the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, then 19, to return to the school from which he had been expelled and commit the killings with an assault rifle. He is charged with murder.
After vandalizing a middle school bathroom in 2013, Cruz was assigned to the district’s Promise program, a Runcie-endorsed diversionary initiative that allows students who commit non-violent misdemeanors to avoid a criminal record. Other Parkland parents have been critical of the program.
DeSantis empanelled the grand jury in February 2019, a month after taking office and suspending the elected sheriff of Broward county, Scott Israel, whose deputies hid as the shooting unfolded. Israel was later fired, but DeSantis conceded he had no authority to remove Runcie.
Precise details of the charges against Runcie and Myrick have not been disclosed, amid the secrecy of the grand jury inquiry. In court filings, the Florida state attorney’s office appears to link them to the arrest of the Broward school district’s former information chief Tony Hunter, who was arrested in January and charged with bid rigging and bribery over a $17m technology contract. Hunter denies the charge.
Speculation has also centered on a controversial $800m bond program approved by voters in 2014, which was intended to fix dilapidated school buildings but which is years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.
Runcie’s lawyer, however, is certain the case is politically motivated.
“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,” Johnny McCray told the Florida Courier.
“It’s all about one thing: running Robert Runcie out of the Broward county school district by any means necessary.”
Runcie, who is Black, won several awards and earned praise in the years before the shooting for helping to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
When he took over in 2011, only 61% of Black students reached graduation in Broward county compared with 81% of whites, a disparity that had narrowed to a little more than 10 percentage points by 2018.
In that time the 261,000-student district as a whole achieved an all-time-high graduation rate above 90%.
During his tenure, the superintendent forged close ties with business and religious leaders and community groups representing minorities, many of whose leaders appeared at a support rally for Runcie in Fort Lauderdale last week.
“You have a community that stands with Bob Runcie, a community that questions this indictment,” the mayor of Miramar, Wayne Messum, said.
Runcie and Myrick appeared before an emergency meeting of the Broward school board on Thursday, at which the panel authorized the chair, Rosalind Osgood, to begin negotiations over the financial terms of their departure.
An interim superintendent is expected to be appointed soon.