DeSantis axes school board members where massacre happened

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 — almost half of its nine members. 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 a fire-alarm system with a 40-second delay that would allow staff to check if there is an emergency and could help prevent students from evacuating into the path of an active shooter. 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.

“What Governor DeSantis did is un-American and undemocratic. He doesn’t care about democracy and overturned the will of the voters,” Levinson said in a statement. She said DeSantis wants to remove anyone who supported former Superintendent Robert Runcie and blame the shooting on them.

“All four Board Members were elected by the people multiple times, including post tragedy. My heart will always go out to all the families and community,” she wrote.

The other three did not immediately respond to phone and email messages left Friday.

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 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.

The grand jury report 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.”

The remaining four board members include two, Debra Hixon and Lori Alhadeff, who were elected after Hixon’s husband, Chris, and Alhadeff’s 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, died in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. They ran on platforms promoting better campus security. Alhadeff, in particular, had frequently been at odds with the targeted members, particularly over Runcie’s performance.

Stand with Parkland, the group that represents most of the victims’ families, applauded the removal. President Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting, said the ousted board members’ “shear incompetence caused the mishandling of many of the aspects of the tragic date that took the lives of so many.”

Other parents tweeted support of the suspensions.

“Karma can punch back!!” tweeted Max Schachter, who lost his 14-year-old son Alex.

Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina died, called the four, “dishonorable, inept & incompetent.”

But Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime died, tweeted that while he supports the removal, “I don’t trust DeSantis as the person with pure intentions to do this. Looking at the replacements, he turned this into a politicized and bad outcome.”

School board races in Florida are nonpartisan, but the ousted four are all Democrats. DeSantis, a Republican, replaced them with members of his party. Broward is a Democratic stronghold, with that party holding a 2-to-1 majority. He has now appointed five of the nine members, including Osgood’s replacement when she won her Senate seat.

DeSantis, in an unusual move for a Florida governor, has gotten involved in county school board races this year throughout the state, issuing 30 endorsements as he has tried to push their composition to the right. Of those, 19 won election in Tuesday’s primary, five lost and six qualified for a runoff.

“Do future Board Members need to pre-clear their votes with DeSantis? Could future Democratic Governors now remove locally elected Republicans?” Levinson said in her statement. “This action is authoritarian-like and has no place in the United States of America.”

The four replacements named by DeSantis are:

— 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, who was appointed to the school board 13 years ago after a bribery scandal, but lost when he ran for the seat.

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