The superintendent of the 6th largest school district in the nation is always on-message. But, parents want to know the real deal on Robert Runcie’s priorities for leading Broward Schools. In our interview he was frank, undistracted and forthcoming on his agenda. From the challenges to change education, to his views on the new federal administration, he made no bones about public education needing a serious upgrade.
Regardless of whether or not you like Broward Schools superintendent, he is true to form. He’s characteristically calm and focused, sometimes to a fault. He can unnerve parents who are aggravated about the state of public education and want to see that emotion mirrored in his leadership. But that wouldn’t happen.
So, some are left thinking, “Does he just not get it?”
In this three (maybe four) part series we shed light into what he’s thinking, beginning with our new federal administration. In future posts he will address big ticket Broward education items such as revamping the teaching profession; focusing on children, not adults; parents preparing kids for success; the General Obligation Bond; and failing poor children.
Runcie’s main theme? Let’s quit being distracted by external noise which doesn’t affect us or are out of our control, and stay focused on us: our kids (especially poor kids), our state, our schools, and our teachers. Period.
A Little Background
Runcie took the job in 2011 in the aftermath of a devastated economy. Broward schools (BCPS) had 2 board members arrested nine months earlier and a grand jury report declared the board mismanaged and corrupt. On his second day BPCS received the worse violation of the state laws in class-size, where Broward accounted for over 70% of the out-of-compliance classrooms in the entire state. The penalty was $66 million, which would have dealt the final blow to a district already on life-support due to massive state per-pupil funding cuts.
He has taken some major heat over the years, as well. In 2012, Runcie’s overhaul of the transportation department, which had been found to be mismanaged by the Florida Department of Transportation, was tumultuous to say the least. Bus routes were left understaffed as a result of eliminated 174 mostly vacant positions in an effort to afford more classroom teachers. More recently, he remains enthralled in the backlash from delays in executing the 2014 General Obligation Bond.
The class-size state fine was reduced to $8.5M, and there has been no fines for the last 3 years. Refinancing old debt, savings in costs such as healthcare and some recovery in state funding from the recession has Broward in one of the best fiscal positions of the last decade. Today, bus fleets are automated with updated technology and the functioning department is again issuing new contracts and raises.
But there is still a lot of work to be done in Broward. Like most of the country, serious economic and social disparities continue to divide our school performance. And though graduation rates exceed the state’s, our students of color are still lagging behind.
Florida is where the action is.
Trump’s appointment to the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, was the first among many upsets in the education world. Bathroom policy for transgender youth, reporting a single-grade for schools, and the rollout of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) all saw some back-pedaling.
But, the most noise is around the federal budget funding school-choice issues. Charter school support and vouchers for private schools have become main players on the education menu of options. Some advocates are excited about the shake up and others fear the defunding of public education.
The superintendent feels differently. “The change in administration is not something we should be losing sleep about or spending our energies on. None of those recent decisions really impacted anything for us. Think about the Trump administration’s recent change in bathroom policy. It didn’t affect us at all because we had policies in place since the Obama administration.”
Runcie says parents should remember two things. Firstly, federal dollars account for 9% of the total funding on education spending in this country. “They can make pronouncements and try to influence state decisions. But that’s pretty much it. The Obama administration did that with Race To The Top.”
And secondly, he reminds us that the trend in the current administration is to give states independence. “This shift goes back to the states’ rights model where the states should have the flexibility to determine what they want to do on education and they shouldn’t be hamstrung and handcuffed by federal dictates. They are shifting power back to the states.”
In sum, “It means that 90% of the action is in Tallahassee and locally within our school systems. That’s what we need to pay attention to.”
But, is Broward ready to take advantage of this de-regulation?
Broward continues to push its legislative platform, which Runcie admits is always a “constant challenge.” But that’s not the focus of his agenda.
“Here’s the thing,” he states. “At some level you can only fight so much. If we spend a lot of time doing that and we lose sight of the big picture. The only individual that can ultimately make the decision is a parent.
“You have to make a decision as to where you want to send your kid to school. We could create a $10 billion voucher fund for you to take your child somewhere else, but if you are satisfied with your local neighborhood school, that’s where you stay. The voucher wouldn’t mean anything. The money only leaves the public system when the parent walks.”
Runcie sees his work in four big areas to serve kids best in their local schools: 1) continued innovation, 2) turning around low performing schools, 3) redesigning public education, and 4) beginning to think about an education system designed around the needs of the students versus students having to fit into it.
“The onus is on us to improve our schools.”
Families do prefer their neighborhood school. I know I do. But if school choice becomes the easy-choice we could see a shift in the tides. Then the question becomes, who is ready now to educate my child to their full potential? And, the race to that finish line is heating up.
Find out how the Superintendent intends to reimagine Broward’s public education, including the teaching profession, in our next blog post.
*Photo cred- School Board Member, Patti Good.