Broward’s school system faces a whole host of challenges these days — such as the growing influence of charter schools and billions of dollars in needed school repairs.
But another issue is dominating one School Board race: the N-word.
Seven years after incumbent School Board member Ann Murray referred to the upper-level Sun Life Stadium seats as “n-- heaven,” the issue continues to haunt her candidacy for reelection. One reason is that Murray’s comment only became public knowledge in 2011, so this marks the first time that voters will be able to voice any displeasure at the ballot box.
Also, Murray’s opponent in this year’s race happens to be a black elected official, West Park Vice Mayor Felicia Brunson. Brunson said voters haven’t forgotten.
“It comes up all the time, because that’s her claim to fame,” Brunson said. “I don’t have to mention it. People know.”
Perhaps because of the N-word controversy — or perhaps because of Brunson’s strength as a political candidate — Murray is widely viewed as the most vulnerable of the five Broward School Board incumbents up for reelection.
Brunson has raised more than double the money of the incumbent, with Brunson amassing $50,571 to Murray’s $23,560. Brunson’s support includes donations from about a dozen local elected officals, including Miramar Mayor Lori Moseley, former Hollywood City Commissioner Beam Furr and Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish.
Brunson, who works as a district manager for Florida Virtual School, also has the support of Broward’s politically active teachers union.
The contested School Board seat includes all or parts of Hollywood, Hallandale Beach, Dania Beach, West Park, Pembroke Pines, Miramar and Pembroke Park. Its population is racially mixed: about 45 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic and 19 percent black.
Murray, a Boston native who has lived in South Florida for decades, uttered the N-word to a white co-worker while she was a supervisor in the district’s transportation department in 2007. Many of Broward’s bus drivers are black, and a couple of those black employees were within earshot, according to prior media reports. One bus driver filed a complaint, and Murray was given a written reprimand. Murray was then elected to the School Board the following year in a special election. She was reelected in 2010.
The N-word incident didn’t become public until 2011. At that point, the public backlash was swift and severe, with some calling on Murray to resign. She apologized, but did not step down from her seat.
“I apologized for it, I don’t know what else I can do,” said Murray, who said, “I’ve had close friends of all races.”
Murray accuses her challenger of exploiting the race issue in the campaign.
“That’s a shame,” Murray said. “Because a campaign should be run on the issues at hand, and the important issues, our students, our employees and our schools.”
There are some areas of agreement between the candidates. Both believe the state needs stronger accountability measures for charter schools, and both are supportive of Broward’s proposed $800 million bond issue, which will go before county voters in November. Brunson, however, said she would like more details on how exactly the district will spend the $800 million if voters approve it.
Murray says she has pushed to improve the quality of the schools in her district — both in terms of upgraded facilities and expanded academics. Murray pointed to Apollo Middle School in Hollywood as one success story, as she said the once underenrolled school has gained hundreds of additional students in recent years. At Hollywood’s South Broward High School, Murray said a new Cambridge International program will allow high school students to earn college credit.
Murray said the district has found millions of dollars in savings by identifying operational efficiencies, such as ending a lease for expensive office space that Broward used to have near Sawgrass Mills. And all Broward district employees got a 2.5 percent raise this year, Murray said.
In the past couple of years, Murray has been a strong supporter of Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who is the district’s first permanent black superintendent. But in 2012, that close relationship with the superintendent strained Murray’s relationship with her former co-workers in the transportation department.
That year, Broward’s start to the school year was turned upside down by weeks of widespread school bus problems. Parents were furious about school buses that were arriving late, or not at all. The drivers blamed management changes implemented by the superintendent, but Murray continued to support Runcie during the crisis.
Brunson said the school bus drivers “thought they had a true advocate in Ann Murray,” but the drivers, she said, ended up feeling let down by Murray.
This election, all of the school district unions, including the union that represents the bus drivers, are supporting Brunson. A representative from the bus drivers’ union did not return a call seeking comment.
Murray said she was “was sort of flabbergasted” that she did not get the bus drivers’ support. Murray herself started with the school system as a bus driver in 1971, and then worked her way up to a management position over the years.
“I’m a staunch union supporter,” Murray said. “My father, my brother, were union people.”
In a statement, Broward Teachers Union President Sharon Glickman said the union endorsed Brunson because she offers a “positive attitude,” she believes all students can succeed and “we find her to be a bright individual who is very knowledgeable about schools.”
If elected, Brunson is promising an “ABC” platform of priorities — accountability, budget transparency and community partnerships.
Brunson said she will also fight to make sure that all Broward schools get their fair share of resources.
“A lot of the schools on the eastern side have a long way to go to you know, bring their schools up to the west,” she said.