Eljohn Macaranas walked up on stage, sat down next to Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, and readied himself to ask a question.
But first, the 17-year-old high school senior whipped out his iPod Touch and snapped a photo. After all, getting to chat with the district’s schools chief (along with two School Board members) was kind of a big deal.
“You guys are just names on a paper to me,” Macaranas said. “It’s just an honor to get to see you, as a person.”
But Macaranas wasn’t star-struck for long. Broward’s “Conversation with the District” events are a rare opportunity for parents, teachers and students to speak directly to the folks at the very top. So Macaranas jumped right in.
The computers at Pembroke Pines’ Flanagan High School, he complained, are nearly a decade old. Macaranas said he eventually quit his school newspaper because of the district’s “incompetency” when it comes to providing proper computer equipment.
Runcie responded by blaming the state, noting that the Legislature in recent years dramatically cut Broward’s capital improvements budget, which pays for new computers. Runcie said the district would keep fighting to convince Tallahassee to restore that money, and School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson chimed in that Broward is also considering a “bring your own device” policy for students.
Macaranas wasn’t quite satisfied. Seizing on Levinson’s comments, he asked, “Do you have something drafted, or is this just a pipe dream?”
The sounds of laughter — and scattered applause — filled the room.
For the next few weeks, similar district “conversations” will be held across Broward. The one Macaranas attended, at Davie’s Western High School, lasted about three hours. As a standard practice, Runcie said the district allows the public to ask about any subject, and the event only concludes when the last question has been answered.
“We’re not going to satisfy everyone 100 percent,” Runcie said. “But we’re going to try.”
The idea of school district leaders holding open “town hall”-style meetings isn’t new. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho hosts regular “Coffee & Conversation” meetings, and Runcie himself did a “Listening Tour” back in 2011.
But for Broward’s school district, the timing of these meetings holds particular significance. Because of problems such as the capital improvements budget (which Runcie inherited) and a controversial high school schedule change (which Runcie created), the district is in need of some effective community outreach.
The outdated computers that Macaranas complained about are a minor nuisance compared to the decrepit condition of some Broward schools. For example, the hallway ceiling at Oakland Park’s Northeast High School collapsed back in January. Students happened to be in class at the time, which prevented any serious injuries.
Districtwide, there are dozens of schools with leaky roofs or other urgent repair needs, and not nearly enough money to fix them all. State budget cuts are one cause, but a 2011 state grand jury report also found a history of questionable district spending decisions made prior to Runcie’s arrival.