School & District Management

Robert Runcie, Superintendent During the Parkland Massacre, to Lead School Safety Initiative

By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — June 13, 2022 7 min read
Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie listens during a meeting of the Broward County School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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Robert Runcie, whose tenure as Broward schools superintendent included the Parkland tragedy and a grand jury indictment, is now overseeing a national group of school leaders and a $1 million project to improve school safety around the country.

Runcie is the interim leader of Chiefs for Change, a Washington, D.C., based education advocacy group that consists of about 50 district superintendents and state education chiefs. The group used to be part of a school reform organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The organization’s new initiative, led by Runcie, is a “School Safety Cohort.” Six school districts pay $166,667 each to a company, formed last year by two Broward school administrators, to review safety plans and track for compliance, records show. The school districts are being reimbursed by Chiefs for Change, which is funded by private donors.

The company, Safer School Solutions, is owned by Brian Katz, the former chief of safety and security for Broward schools, and Philip Dunn, the district’s former technology chief. The business operates out of a shared office space facility on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, according to Florida Division of Corporations records.

The initiative involves using the product, “EagleEyED,” described on the company website as a “Safety and Security Risk Tracking System that promotes accountability in your school district physical security and cybersecurity operations.”

The tasks, according to the news release, may include ensuring that security cameras are in working order, that protocols for locking doors and checking in visitors are followed, that school resource officers are at their assigned locations and that emergency drills are regularly conducted during varied times of the school day.

Schools must be safe so kids can learn and teachers can do their important work.

“We will help these leaders and their teams collect data so they have a clearer understanding of what is happening across their districts,” Katz said in a Chiefs for Change news release. “What are the security policies already in place? Are there any gaps? Are there additional steps teams can take to verify that processes are followed?”

The aim is to help districts “make data-driven decisions, which will ultimately make schools safer through accountability,” Katz said in the release.

Neither Katz nor Dunn could be reached by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, despite calls to their cellphones. Runcie did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His cellphone went straight to voicemail when a Sun Sentinel reporter called. His lawyer, Johnny McCray, also couldn’t be reached.

The six participating school districts are in Dallas; Oakland, California; Phoenix; Highline, Washington; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Poudre, Colorado. The only known connection any district has to Broward is Poudre Superintendent Brian Kingsley, a former principal and chief academic officer with Broward schools.

“Some of us have directly experienced the pain of a school shooting in our communities,” Runcie said in the release. “It never goes away. Schools must be safe so kids can learn and teachers can do their important work. Through this new cohort, Chiefs for Change will strive to identify the most effective policies and processes, and will then share those approaches far and wide.”

Runcie led Broward when a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. Investigations by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and a state public safety commission identified numerous failures by the district related to the education and support services given to the former student as well as the high school’s lack of preparedness for a school shooting.

Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent for the Dallas Independent School District, said the Chiefs for Change project is just one of her district’s many school safety initiatives. She said there are lessons to be learned from those who have dealt firsthand with a school shooting.

“Any time a crisis occurs, it’s important for everyone to take stock of what has happened, both the positive signs as well as possible areas of failing, so we can catch those before another tragedy,” Cordova said.

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Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie at left. Clockwise from left are parents Tony Montalto, Ryan Petty, Max Schachter, Andrew Pollack, Fred Guttenberg, and Lori Alhadeff.
Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie at left. Clockwise from left are parents Tony Montalto, Ryan Petty, Max Schachter, Andrew Pollack, Fred Guttenberg, and Lori Alhadeff.
Josh Ritchie for Education Week

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission made numerous recommendations about ways to improve safety but then frequently blasted Runcie for being slow to make changes.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Sun Sentinel this month that many issues, such as a refusal to share data with law enforcement and a reluctance to train staff on how to conduct proper threat assessments, were fixed only after Runcie left.

As for the new Chiefs for Change safety initiative, Gualtieri said, “The goal seems laudable. Any comments would have to be about the people involved, and I’m not interested in going there.”

Commission member Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter Alaina in the shooting, said Runcie is not qualified to lead this effort.

“I saw no signs that Mr. Runcie acknowledged his own mistakes or was willing to make significant changes based on the findings of our investigation,” Petty said.

In February 2019, a year after the shooting, Runcie and the School Board hired Katz to oversee safety and security efforts. Katz had previously worked as an internal leak investigator for Google as well as a special agent with the U.S. Department of State but had no previous school experience.

He helped the school district implement recommendations by a security consultant and the commission. He expanded and revamped the district’s security force, using money approved by voters in a 2018 referendum. The second half of his 2½-year tenure was spent mostly dealing with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katz applied to be interim superintendent in June 2021, but the School Board said no.

A few weeks later, he resigned and launched Safer School Solutions with Dunn, who was the district’s technology chief. Dunn resigned in November 2021 after about two years in the district.

Why Chiefs for Change chose Safer School Solutions is unclear. Leila Walsh, a spokeswoman for Chiefs for Change, did not respond to repeated questions about the project.

Chiefs for Change started in 2010 as an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Gov. Bush. It originally focused on supporting school choice and Common Core education standards, but its mission later morphed into developing a diverse and bipartisan group of leaders who could tackle a variety of issues facing school districts.

The group split off from Bush’s organization and became its own nonprofit in 2015. A spokesman for the Florida organization, now known as ExcelinEd, declined to comment about Runcie’s new role with Chiefs for Change.

Runcie has served on the Board of Directors for Chiefs for Change since 2017, tax records show. The organization issued a statement of support for Runcie after a grand jury indicted him on a perjury charge in April 2021.

“He has always shown himself to be a person of the highest integrity,” then-CEO Mike Magee wrote. “I do not know the specifics of the allegations against him; however, I know he is a man of character with a strong moral compass. Chiefs for Change is grateful for Bob’s leadership and is proud that he is a member of our community.”

After Runcie realized he didn’t have the support from the School Board to stay on long-term, he negotiated a $755,000 exit package and left in August, after current Superintendent Vickie Cartwright started.

That same month, he started as a “chief in residence” for Chiefs for Change, a part-time mentoring role given to experienced school district leaders, including former Palm Beach County Superintendent Donald Fennoy and outgoing Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins.

“They do not hold full-time positions at Chiefs for Change but provide advisory support on an as-needed basis to members of our network and our Future Chiefs leadership development program,” Walsh, the organization spokeswoman, told the Sun Sentinel in a November email.

When Magee left in April to take a job as president of Minerva University in San Francisco, the Chiefs for Change board named Runcie as the interim replacement. But the organization decided not to publicize it.

An announcement was made to members April 18, but not to the public, and Runcie maintained his title of “chief in residence.” In a May 17 email to the Sun Sentinel, Walsh would not answer questions about Runcie’s expanded role.

“Robert Runcie is not CEO or interim CEO. He is a chief in residence, not a staff member,” she wrote at the time.

After the Sun Sentinel shared with Walsh an email Board Chairman Pedro Martinez sent to Chiefs for Change members saying Runcie will “manage day-to-day operations and oversee staff,” Walsh then confirmed Runcie’s new role.

“He remains a chief in residence today. His title has not changed,” Walsh wrote on May 19. “You asked who is leading the organization in the interim. As chief in residence, Robert is doing so while the board conducts a nationwide search for a new CEO.”

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