Broward schools: Can we talk? Conversation sessions for parents, students, teachers

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.

Through Runcie plans to keep lobbying state lawmakers for additional funding, the strongly anti-tax Legislature is unlikely to help. That means Broward will probably need voter approval of either a sales tax increase or local bond issue to raise enough money to renovate its aging schools.

Carvalho last year convinced Miami-Dade voters to approve a $1.2 billion bond issue, financed by local property taxes, which will pay for dramatic renovations, along with more than 100,000 new digital devices. A key part of Carvalho’s successful sales pitch was making the case that local schools had made tremendous, tangible progress in recent years, and were deserving of additional public investment.

Broward district leaders haven’t announced any planned date for a voter referendum, but events like the current “conversation” series — which always begin with Runcie touting some of the district’s recent accomplishments — could help improve the school system’s reputation with voters.

The immediate issue for Runcie, however, is calming the widespread anger and frustration among the district’s teachers. At the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, state lawmakers approved $480 million in teacher raises earlier this year, but neither Broward nor Miami-Dade have yet paid out those raises — both districts are still negotiating the terms with their respective teachers’ unions.

In Broward, high school teachers have their own separate grievance: starting last year, Runcie forced high schools to adopt a uniform seven-period class schedule. The change was designed to reduce class sizes, but it also meant that many teachers had to teach an additional class, without any extra pay.

The Broward Teachers Union fought the issue in arbitration and won, so the district now must pay its teachers $20 million in back pay. But just like with the state-funded raises, there’s no clear timetable for when this additional money will show up in teachers’ paychecks. Teachers are growing impatient.

And even if those contract disputes are eventually settled, there are still the lingering effects from teacher pay being frozen for several years during the recession.

Hawkes Bluff Elementary teacher Maria de la Nuez, in her 24th year on the job, had to hold back tears as she complained to Runcie that those salary freezes have cumulatively cost her about $61,000 in decreased wages. She spoke about her oldest son’s desire to attend Florida State University, and how she had to tell him that going away for college was simply beyond the family’s means.

“I feel very helpless,” de la Nuez told Runcie. “I want to be able to afford for them to go away.”

Runcie, in his response, said he supported paying teachers more, and that Florida and the nation need to increase their investment in teachers. But there were no specific dollar-amount promises, and de la Nuez walked away disappointed.

“What did he say that you could say, ‘Oh wow!’ That you could hold him to?” de la Nuez said. “Nothing. I’m sorry, I feel like it was more political than anything else.”