January 22, 2013 | By Michael Vasquez, The Miami Herald
The honeymoon may be long over, but Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie still boasts the solid support of the majority of the Broward School Board — with six board members rating Runcie “highly effective” during his latest semi-annual performance review.
Broward’s remaining three school board members gave Runcie an “effective” grade — including School Board member Nora Rupert, who at times has been Runcie’s strongest critic. During discussion of the recently-completed evaluation at a Tuesday School Board workshop, board members repeatedly showered Runcie with praise.
“He’s a dynamic individual, a visionary,” School Board member Patricia Good said.
Said board member Robin Bartleman to the superintendent: “What I admire most about you is, it’s all about the kids.”
When he became Broward’s schools chief in the fall of 2011, Runcie was tasked with restoring the reputation of a school district that had become a local poster child for scandal. Two board members had been arrested on corruption charges in recent years, and a grand jury report released eight months before Runcie’s arrival blasted the nation’s sixth largest school district as a backroom-dealing cesspool of lobbyist influence.
Under Runcie’s leadership, the district awarded teachers their first raise in more than four years, though the salary boosts were somewhat modest. Broward also dramatically improved its performance under Florida’s class-size rules, with the percentage of classes in compliance rising from about 54 percent to 84 percent.
Runcie not only halted teacher layoffs but found the money to hire hundreds of additional teachers, and electives such as music and art (previously a victim of budget cuts) were restored to elementary schools.
Not all of Runcie’s changes worked out perfectly, however. Some of the money for hiring teachers came from radically overhauling the district’s school bus transportation department. When Runcie’s new-and-improved transportation department botched the beginning of the school year (with widespread reports of late or no-show buses) the superintendent absorbed weeks of heavy criticism.
The supervisor in charge of that dysfunctional bus service, transportation director Chester Tindall, was a friend of Runcie’s from a time when the two men both worked in Chicago. With parents furious over the bus mishaps, Runcie reassigned Tindall but refused to fire him. Tindall finally announced his resignation last month.
That school bus soap opera did make its way into some board members’ written evaluations of the superintendent. In writing that Runcie “Needs Improvement” in the Leadership/Management category, Rupert called the busing mistakes “The Giant Elephant in the Room.”
Bartleman, while overall complimentary of Runcie, wrote “The transportation issues that occurred at the beginning of the year have overshadowed many of Mr. Runcie’s accomplishments.”
Some board members also complained that the district’s communication skills — both internally and when reaching out to the public — are sorely lacking. Other Florida school districts, for example, have glitzier websites. The Palm Beach County school district has its own mobile phone app.
Runcie responded that improving the district’s web presence will also require upgrading some of its outdated computer technology. In an interview following the workshop, Runcie said he planned to move forward on that front, as he felt there was lots of good news about the district to promote online.
Overall, we’ve turned the corner,” Runcie said. “Does everybody out there recognize it? I don’t know.”
Regarding the difficulties he encountered in remaking the transportation department, Runcie said the goal was to steer more money into the classroom, and that experience wouldn’t deter him from similar efforts in the future.
“The bottom line is this: any time you’re going through any real transformative change, it’s not going to be always smooth,” Runcie said.