DeSantis axes school board members tied to Parkland massacre

File - Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a crowd in Sarasota.
File - Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a crowd in Sarasota.(Jace Harper)
Published: Aug. 26, 2022 at 4:10 PM EDT
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis removed four members of the Broward County school board Friday, one week after a grand jury empaneled to investigate a 2018 school massacre accused them and district administrators of “deceit, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence” in their handling of a campus safety program.

DeSantis signed an executive order suspending board members Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson. The grand jury had also recommended the removal of former member Rosalind Osgood, but she is now elected to the Florida Senate. The four can appeal their removal to the Senate.

DeSantis said in a statement that four years after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead, the district still had not installed at all schools an alarm system for active shooters. He also said some Broward students “continue to be educated in unsafe, aging, decrepit, moldy buildings that were supposed to have been renovated years ago.”

The district is the nation’s sixth-largest, with more than 270,000 students at 333 campuses, and an annual budget of $4 billion.

“These are inexcusable actions by school board members who have shown a pattern of emboldening unacceptable behavior, including fraud and mismanagement, across the district,” DeSantis said.

Murray and Levinson were already leaving office at the end of the year, having decided not to seek reelection. Korn qualified in this week’s primary election for a November runoff — if elected, she would resume office. Good’s term was to expire in 2024.

After the grand jury report was made public last week, Levinson, the board’s chairwoman, angrily slammed the report as a “political hatchet job” orchestrated by the governor.

“It is nasty partisan politics. He should be ashamed of himself,” she said.

The grand jury began meeting 15 months after the Stoneman Douglas shooting. The killer, Nikolas Cruz, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder in October and is now on trial to decide whether he will be sentenced to death or life without parole.

Former Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie resigned last year after he was indicted for allegedly lying to the grand jury. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The school board has nine members, including two, Debra Hixon and Lori Alhadeff, who were elected after Hixon’s husband and Alhadeff’s daughter died in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. They ran on platforms promoting better campus security. Alhadeff, in particular, has frequently been at odds with the targeted members, particularly over Runcie’s performance before his resignation.

The grand jury said that Runcie’s and the accused board members’ “uninformed or even misinformed decisions, incompetent management and lack of meaningful oversight” has led to massive cost overruns and delays in a school safety and education program approved by county voters in 2014. The report says the $1 billion program that was supposed to be completed in 2021 is now projected to cost $1.5 billion when it is finished in 2025 — estimates the jury called “wishcasting.”

Levinson, who is not seeking reelection as her third four-year term expires at the end of the year, said last week that the grand jury was supposed to focus on what caused the Stoneman Douglas shooting, pointing to the victims’ parents who stood with DeSantis when he announced its formation.

“It is disgusting that on the backs of these families to have a bait-and-switch grand jury,” she said. “The majority of the report has nothing to do with Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”

Korn said in a statement last week that “while I respect the grand jury process, I stand on my record,” pointing to the district’s high graduation rate.

DeSantis fired former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel just after he took office in January 2019, saying Israel’s lack of leadership contributed to the Stoneman Douglas shooting. DeSantis is a Republican, but Broward is a Democratic stronghold by a 2-to-1 margin.

To replace the suspended members, DeSantis appointed:

  • Torey Alston, president of a management consulting firm. DeSantis had previously appointed him to fill an opening on the Broward County Commission.
  • Manuel “Nandy” Serrano, founder and CEO of a financial consulting company for professional athletes.
  • Ryan Reiter, a government relations director for a construction company.
  • Attorney Kevin Tynan, a former member of the school board.