Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates say they support Broward schools chief

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie addresses the crowd of educators as most of the Democrats who are running for Florida governor attended an educational rally in Miami Gardens on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie addresses the crowd of educators as most of the Democrats who are running for Florida governor attended an educational rally in Miami Gardens on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018. cjuste@miamiherald.com

The Democrats running for Florida governor appeared in Miami Gardens Sunday to rally for public education — and while they were at it threw their support behind embattled Broward schools chief Robert Runcie.

Amid intensifying criticism of the handling of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter by the sixth largest school system in the country, most of the Democratic candidates seeking the party’s nomination for governor appeared in South Florida as guest speakers alongside Runcie at a rally for teachers. Four of the five candidates answered the Miami Herald’s questions about Runcie, each pushing back on statements last week by Republican gubernatorial front-runner Ron DeSantis that the superintendent should be removed from office.

“There were a lot of failures in the system, from the very top (meaning the federal government) all the way down to the local government. To hold only one individual responsible for that, to me, would be a travesty,” said Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who criticized the state government for failing to give school districts the money to pay for a new mandate to have a police officer at every school.

Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum addresses the crowd of educators as Democrats who are running for the U.S. Senate, Florida governor, and attorney general for the state of Florida attended an educational rally at the Betty Anderson Rec Center in Miami Gardens, Florida on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who graduated from a Broward County public school and has been endorsed by the parents of two students killed at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas, said Runcie is doing “a good job.”

“I don’t believe that a gubernatorial candidate like ‘Radical Ron’ has any place telling the teachers or telling the folks of Broward County that they need to fire their supervisor,” Levine said. “A lot has to happen in education. But going out and trying to come up with scapegoats is not the way to come up with [better] education.”

Gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine speaks at a rally in Miami Gardens along with other Democrats who are running in the U.S. Senate, gubernatorial and attorney general races in Florida. Levine came in third place in Florida’s Democratic primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Real estate tycoon Jeff Greene was lukewarm, saying “I don’t agree with DeSantis,” but otherwise declining to comment on a matter to which he said he hadn’t given much thought. Former congresswoman Gwen Graham left quickly after giving a speech at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex and was not available for an in-person interview. Her campaign did not provide a comment.

“There’s no question that mistakes were made that allowed this tragedy to occur, but I don’t believe a change needs to be made in this case,” Winter Park businessman Chris King, who did not attend the rally, said in a statement.

Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Greene Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Runcie, who spoke toward the end of the event after all the gubernatorial candidates left, has faced increased criticism following the Feb. 14 school massacre as information has seeped out about the district’s handling of shooter Nikolas Cruz. Conservatives have seized on misinformation spread by the school district about Cruz’s past referral to a suspension-diversion program called PROMISE, and some Parkland parents, including two who are running for the Broward County School Board, have also been critical of the district.

Scrutiny ratcheted up recently after the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported details from an audit commissioned by the district that revealed school officials had made mistakes related to Cruz’s student services. The report had been redacted by the school district under court order and released to the public in a digital format, but the Sentinel learned that the protected information — which was also unflattering to the school system — could be read by copying and pasting text into a Word document.

The school district, which had petitioned the courts to help it legally release the document after receiving protests from Cruz’s attorneys, responded by filing a petition to invoke contempt proceedings against the Sun Sentinel — drawing new backlash.

In the contempt motion — which the board’s attorney said was made without consulting the superintendent — the district argued that the Sun Sentinel violated a court order by publishing protected information. But Runcie said the legal filing has been miscast as an attack on the newspaper. He said the district would have preferred that the entire, un-redacted report be made available, but the courts ordered something different.

“All we did was put the court on notice that there’s an un-redacted version out there and you, court, can decide what you want to do,” said Runcie, who said he’s trying to focus on a new school year that began Wednesday. “It’s my preference that the public gets as much information as possible, but none of us are above the law.”

A judge last week blasted the newspaper. But the Sentinel’s attorneys have strenuously argued that the newspaper and its reporters did nothing wrong in reporting legally obtained information that the district itself released to the public.

Asked about DeSantis’ comments, Runcie threw his hand up in slight exasperation.

“I’m not even going to get into — that stuff is a bunch of nonsense. I don’t have time to do that. I need to focus on moving this district forward,” he said. “I’ve never met the man.”