A Harvard-educated businessman turned educator who struggled with his own academic challenges as a child is Broward’s new schools chief.
The Broward School Board on Wednesday selected Robert Runcie, a computer consultant and chief of staff to the Chicago Board of Education, as the district’s superintendent.
Runcie, 50, who was recruited to help clean up Chicago schools after an episode of mismanagement, now will now head a district that has also weathered a storm of criticism for what a state grand jury report called ‘”inept” leadership. His hiring is seen as the opportunity for a fresh start for a district dogged by criticism and the corruption charges filed against two former board members.
Touting his experience in running operations in the nation’s third-largest school district (Broward is the sixth-largest), Runcie was chosen over Bernard Taylor Jr., superintendent in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“I will give you everything I have,” Runcie said, after receiving a standing ovation from the board and community leaders after the vote. “I will work 24/7, 365 days a year on behalf of the kids.
Together as a board and district we’re going to be the finest educational body in the country. You have my promise on that.”
Runcie has strong ties to Arne Duncan, the current U.S. Secretary of Education, who gave Runcie his start in the education sector.
Duncan, former Chicago schools chief tapped Runcie in 2003 to join his management team as chief information officer. Runcie was charged with bringing order to a technology department marred with delays in installing school computers funded through a federal grant. Duncan was listed as one of Runcie’s references in his application packet to the board.
Some are hopeful that Runcie’s connection to the Obama administration through Duncan will draw some benefits to the district and raise Broward’s profile in the national discourse on school reform.
Throughout his interviews, Runcie said he wants Broward to serve as a national model for what’s done right. “We all need to do this together,” he said. “There’s not really one Superman in America, but there are super communities.”
Despite being the front-runner in the board’s previous two rounds of semi-finalist selections, Runcie was not the board’s unanimous choice on Wednesday.
Board members Maureen Dinnen and Nora Rupert voted for Taylor, citing his lifelong career as an educator. Taylor worked as a principal in Pittsburgh before eventually becoming superintendent in Kansas City and Grand Rapids.
Dinnen and Rupert are former teachers and had misgivings about Runcie’s lack of experience as a teacher or principal.
“If you don’t know what it’s like to be in that classroom and really engage with those student, I definitely think that’s a problem,” Dinnen said.
But in interviews with the board and the community, Runcie tried to ease concerns about his limited classrooms experience, noting that as a onetime chief academic officer in Chicago, he played a hands-on role in the operations of 23 schools.
“I felt he came across as very genuine,” said longtime parent activist Jeanne Jusevic. “I’m optimistic. My hope is Mr. Runcie is going to be everything he says he will be.”
Ultimately, it was the board’s desire for a “hybrid” candidate with business acumen and education experience that made Runcie stand out. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in finance, and has a master’s in management from Northwestern University.
“If we can get the business side of our district in order, we can put those resources back in the classroom,” board member Donna Korn said.
Runcie will walk into the job with a staggering financial challenge: a $171 million budget shortfall and 1,100 fewer teachers than last year.
Board member Robin Bartleman said she was looking for a superintendent who would be “data-driven” and that Runcie fit the bill.
“You can see the thought process,” Bartleman said describing Runcie’s measured style of speaking. “He’s very deliberate.”
Runcie told the board he was an advocate of the public school concept because of his own academic challenges. Raised by Jamaican parents who had only a third-grade education, he had to repeat the first grade, and credited the “push” from teachers and his parents that drove him to excel academically.
“I believe that my life story is something that can serve as a role model for the students and families in this district,” Runcie said. “What it says to them is, ‘No matter where you come from, no matter where you live, no matter your socioeconomic status, no matter what race you are, no matter your orientation, you can be successful.”
Throughout two days of interviews in Broward, Runcie was joined by his wife, Diana. The couple has three children – two in college, and one still in high school. Runcie said the family will have to discuss whether his daughter will finish school in Chicago with her classmates or move to Florida.
The search for the district’s new chief was prompted by the June 30 resignation of former Superintendent Jim Notter, who stepped down after a difficult two years.
Notter had an acrimonious relationship with the Broward Teacher’s Union, but union President Pat Santeramo said while he had hoped the search process would have yielded more candidates, he hopes to establish a good relationship with Runcie.
“It’s about having collaboration, it’s not about having an adversarial role,” Santeramo said.
Runcie said one of his first moves toward restoring public confidence in the district would be to organize a “listening tour” in his first days to get a feel for community concerns. He also plans to evaluate the district’s “top 100” administrators to form his management team.
It may be a few weeks before he gets the chance to make the rounds in the community. The district must first negotiate a salary for the position that’s been advertised at around $275,000. A proposed contract will likely come before the board at its Oct. 4 meeting.
Even without a set start date, Runcie said he is eager to make Broward his new home.
“I’ve kind of fallen in love with Broward,” Runcie told the board. “Working together, the sky’s the limit in terms of what we can do.”