For Broward’s school board, the mission ahead is twofold: improve educational outcomes for the district’s 258,000-plus students and restore public trust in a school system that repeatedly has been tarred by scandal.
With two board members voluntarily stepping down this election cycle, some new faces on the board are inevitable. But there are also three incumbents running — all of whom say the district is now headed in the right direction.
Criticism of the FCAT is common among the candidates, though state policy effectively obligates Broward to administer the test. Numerous candidates also stress the need for Broward schools to improve “customer service” and to make it easier for parents to become involved.
Out of nine School Board seats, five are contested in the Aug. 14 primary election. Here’s a breakdown of those races:
COUNTYWIDE SCHOOL BOARD SEATS
District 8: This race features two heavyweight candidates: incumbent Donna Korn and state Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston. Also running is retired school administrator Andrew Luciani, who hasn’t raised nearly as much money as his rivals but boasts a long history as a schools administrator, including serving as superintendent in suburban New Jersey.
Korn was appointed to a vacant Northwest Broward seat last year by Gov. Rick Scott. At a candidates’ forum held in Margate last week, Korn touted her experience working as a high school teacher and, more recently, in commercial real estate. A former elementary school PTA president, Korn said she is committed to proper budget oversight and will push for improved customer service if elected. Korn also said there are untapped opportunities for the district to partner with the local business community, particularly for specialized career training.
Sands, meanwhile, argues that his experience in the state capital gives him a distinct advantage. State lawmakers in Tallahassee are the driving force behind many educational policies.
Sands said he knows “how to access Tallahassee, who the players are. They know me.” Sands, if elected, promises to improve parental involvement in the school district, and like many other candidates, he wants to boost teacher pay.
Luciani said his extensive experience as a school administrator makes him an expert in “the business of education.” If elected, Luciani said he would fight the current emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing, while encouraging the creation of specialized programs to boost the population of underenrolled schools.
District 9: Longtime board member Robin Bartleman is the well-known (and well-funded) incumbent in this race. A former Weston city commissioner, Bartleman was first elected to the School Board in 2004.
Challenging Bartleman are endodontist Bill Barkins and retired school administrator Barbara Wilson.
Both challengers accuse Bartleman of failing to halt the district’s slide into rampant corruption and inefficiency: Two board members were arrested in recent years on bribery charges, and a 2011 grand jury report blasted the School Board for putting special interests before students.
Barkins said of the incumbent, “She knew of crimes, she kept her mouth shut, she did nothing.”
Chimed in Wilson: “Somehow, someone is not watching the store.”
Bartleman defends her track record, and says she confronted the board’s failings by strongly advocating for stronger ethics rules. For example, board members no longer serve on the district’s procurement committees, which are responsible for awarding multimillion-dollar contracts.
“You don’t paint everyone with one broad brush,” Bartleman said. “I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘We need to fix something.’”
If re-elected, Bartleman’s priorities include replicating the district’s successful specialty programs, such as its Montessori schools. Barkins says he would implement new accountability evaluations for district administrators, while Wilson promises to ensure children from all parts of the district get their fair share of resources.
District 3: Board member Katherine “Katie” Leach was appointed last year in a time of upheaval — the district was reeling from the findings of a critical grand jury report, and was in the midst of a search for a new superintendent.
An hour after being sworn in, Leach joined the rest of the board in reviewing the resumes of superintendent candidates. Chicago’s Robert Runcie ultimately became the board’s pick, and Leach says the district, under Runcie’s leadership, has since made tangible progress.
As an example, Leach cites the district’s long-troubled transportation department, which has been reorganized in the upcoming budget year. Through operational changes and some eliminated positions, the district expects to save $14 million.
“We had, at one point, employees who were only coming to work 70 percent of the time,” Leach said. “That department has had a history of nepotism and corruption and waste.”
Challenging Leach in this race is former district building inspector C. Rebecca “Becky” Blackwood and social studies teacher Michael Levinson.
Blackwood said the district has been taking “baby steps” in the right direction, but that having a board member with her construction expertise is key. School Board members have been roundly criticized in the past for making poor decisions when it comes to construction contracts.
“They need somebody up there who does have that experience,” said Blackwood, who has spent 28 years in the construction industry.
Levinson, a Plantation Middle School social studies teacher who earned his school’s Teacher of the Year honors in 2007, said parents urged him to run. Levinson calls teaching the “core of the enterprise” in the Broward schools system, and said his background would serve him well as a board member. Among Levinson’s priorities: creating an improved, more-objective way of evaluating teacher performance, and improving the district’s finances through efficiency and new sources of revenue.
“People are frustrated,” Levinson said. “What they really don’t like is the fact that they pay what they consider to be high taxes ... and they don’t feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.”
The district includes portions of Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, Oakland Park and Wilton Manors.
District 4: This northwest Broward district has been the School Board’s revolving door, with the winner of this race set to be the fourth person to hold this position in three years. The instability began after Stephanie Kraft was arrested on corruption charges. Her replacement resigned for family reasons, and the next replacement, Korn, is leaving this seat to campaign for a countywide School Board post.
The new candidates are Abby Freedman, Andrew Ladanowski, Robert “Bob” Mayersohn, Rochelle “Shelly” Solomon and Nick Steffens. The crowded field means the race will likely go to a runoff between the top two finishers in November.
(Another candidate, Louis Kushner, dropped out of the race, though his name will still appear on the ballot.)
Freedman describes herself in campaign materials as the “perfect combination” for the job: a mom and a teacher with a business background (Freedman manages her husband’s Pembroke Pines medical office). Freedman’s priorities include reducing the district’s spending on testing and transportation, and boosting the amount spent on classroom supplies and teacher pay.
Ladanowski, too, would like to see teacher pay go up, and he says he would look for cost savings by streamlining and modernizing various district functions. For example, Ladanowski notes that paper employee timecards are still used in parts of the school system. A medical business consultant by trade, Ladanowski prepared for his School Board run in part by taking some substitute teaching shifts, an experience he calls “a real eye opener.”
Mayersohn has long been active on various school district advisory boards, and as such says he would be best equipped to “hit the ground running” — an important quality since the winner will only serve out a partial term of two years. Mayersohn said he would strive to improve the school district’s communication skills, internally and with the community. Mayersohn said the board can support teachers not just on the issue of pay, but also by providing additional school volunteers or non-instructional staff.
Solomon, meanwhile, is campaigning on a platform of transparency. She promises to push for more of the district’s financial details to be posted online. She calls herself “really big on customer service” and said she would like to make students, parents, cities, and business leaders feel more welcome in the district.
Steffens, an attorney, has one of the most ambitious campaign promises: eliminating the FCAT in elementary schools, which is state policy. In the likely event that the state objects, Steffens said he wouldn’t rule out litigation on the issue.
Steffens’ track record as an attorney contains a blemish from last year, as the Florida Bar suspended him for 10 days — and forced him to refund $5,000 to a client — after the Bar found he failed to do any work for the client and ignored Bar investigators’ questions. Steffens defended his work for the client and said he made an error in not responding properly to the Bar complaint.
District 5: In a district that includes some of Broward’s poorest neighborhoods, the candidates for the District 5 seat stress the need to spread the district’s resources more fairly and get parents more involved in their schools.
The candidates here are Torey Alston, Christopher Hugley Sr., Ruth Lynch, Grover Monroe, and Rosalind Osgood.
Alston is chief of staff to Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief, and is the son of a Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy. Alston’s priorities, if elected, include expanding vocational programs, eliminating waste and corruption, and improving graduation rates for black male students.
Hugley, a Broward schools substitute teacher, says the school system suffers from a bloated bureaucracy, and he wants parents to take more responsibility for their children’s’ education. Hugley also complains that some District 5 schools aren’t maintained adequately.
Lynch, a political and business consultant, says the School Board needs to prioritize its spending better, and classroom instruction should get more attention. Lynch also promises to be an effective liaison to the community, and to speak honestly.
“If you want the truth, vote for Ruth,” Lynch is fond of saying.
Monroe, a school bus driver, vows to be an advocate for school employees. Monroe also said the school system should be less generous with the starting salaries for high-level administrators — at least until they prove their worth, he said.
Osgood, who decades ago struggled with drug addiction and was homeless at one point, credits education with turning her life around. Now a minister with a PhD in public administration, Osgood said she would bring “hope” to the School Board. While supportive of standardized testing, Osgood says the FCAT should not be the be-all, end-all in local schools, and schools should also teach general life skills. To engage families in this predominantly black district, Osgood said the school system should form partnerships with local churches.
“It’s going to take us coming together,” Osgood said.