Despite being suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis after a critical statewide grand jury report, Broward County School Board member Donna Korn is pressing ahead with her reelection, even after being forced into a runoff. The question now is whether she’ll be suspended again if she wins.
Korn, a commercial real estate broker, tells City & State she’s done a good job for the people and students of Broward and her suspension was unwarranted. In fact, as the Sun Sentinel put it last month, she “blasted the statewide grand jury report that led to her suspension, describing it as a ‘Mean Girls slam book’ and a ‘political maneuver.’ ”
“The governor wanted the School Board to remove Runcie and it did not do so,” she says, referring to Robert Runcie, the county’s schools superintendent at the time of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County. In February 2018, a former student of the school killed 17 students and staff members. “Investigations by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and a state public safety commission identified numerous failures related to the education and support services given to the former student as well as the high school’s lack of preparedness for a shooting,” Education Week has reported. Runcie later quit after being charged with perjury related to the grand jury investigation.
“The school board did not align with DeSantis’ intentions, and he couldn’t remove board members because they are elected officials,” Korn adds. “I know the families of the children who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were feeling pain and wanted people held responsible. I don’t think it was appropriate to take action based on the pain they feel. I think we should focus on the safety improvements we made.”
The grand jury recommended that Korn and three other members be suspended for incompetence, neglect of duty and misuse of authority. In a statement, DeSantis’ office noted that “a safety-related alarm that could have possibly saved lives” but quoted the report, saying the alarm was “such a low priority that it remains uninstalled at multiple schools and students continue to be educated in unsafe, aging, decrepit, moldy buildings that were supposed to have been renovated years ago. These are inexcusable actions by school board members who have shown a pattern of emboldening unacceptable behavior including fraud and mismanagement, across the district.” He suspended Korn, Patricia Good, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson on Aug. 26.
Korn, who holds an at-large seat, now must fend off challenger Dr. Allen Zeman, a Navy veteran and CEO of a data analytics company that focuses on workforce issues. After the first election with four candidates, Korn took 30.5% and Zeman received 30% of the vote. Because no one came away with more than 50%, the contest moves to a runoff on Nov. 8. Spokespeople for DeSantis, however, have not said whether the governor will again suspend Korn should she win next month.
Both candidates focus on school safety
Korn believes she still has a great deal to offer, saying she wants to find more money to pay higher salaries. “We need to work harder for students’ achievement,” she says. “We need increased pay for educators. To retain and attract good teachers, we need to pay them well. We need more funding from the state. We need to pay them more so they can afford to live in South Florida.” That’s even above the pay increase DeSantis OK’d this year, approving an extra $800 million for teachers across Florida.
She went on: “We need to implement expanded programs. One initiative is ‘Reimagining Middle Schools.’ We need to have a better approach for delivering education to middle school students. We need to engage students with additional opportunities. We need to pursue project-based learning in the classroom. We need to focus on social and emotional learning and look for the best way to reach our children. We need to have more project-based learning. During my time on the board, the high school graduation rates improved.”
As to safety and security, Korn says Broward schools started using “smart cameras and adopted single points of entry” under her watch. “We have been considered a model district of safety.”
For his part, Zeman says he believes his long experience as a Navy senior executive makes him the best candidate. He wants to see an overhaul of the district’s approach to safety, academic achievement and overall community relations. “We have to shift our strategies on safety and security,” he tells City & State. “We have to think about school security like national security, so we don’t have another incident like Uvalde, Texas. Right now, security is just focused on repetitive drills.”
During his time in the Navy he would often play the role of the enemy during warfare training exercises. He believes school security needs to be more comprehensive. “Right now we have people who want to kill our children, so we need to play out scenarios where a person could attack groups of children (at) athletic events, school assemblies and traditional school environments,” Zeman says. “We need to be very serious about the threats to our children.”
He also says the district needs to improve its overall grade from a B to an A. “I think we should give principals the resources to go out and hire the best educators. We should have a very strong focus on the 9th-grade year. We need to empower principals so they can lead.” And Zeman wants to rally the local business community to be more supportive of its public schools: “Many businesses and teachers don’t want to come to Broward because it is not affordable. We need to show them how important schools are.”
David Volz has been a reporter for numerous community news publications throughout South Florida over the past two decades, as well as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and South Florida Business Journal. He covers city government, schools, sports, culture, faith groups and workplaces.