News and Commentary

PRESTON: A Response To Officials Who Condemned Me For Exposing Failures Prior To Stoneman Shooting

Less than a week ago, I released my investigative report detailing over $100,000,000 in school safety funds that Broward Schools failed to spend prior to the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School. This week, district officials and the organization tasked with overseeing the distribution of that money responded to my report. In a tweet, the Superintendent of Broward Schools suggested that anyone “interested in facts” read the organization’s response to my claims. The response is riddled with character attacks, and their explanation is non-consequential at best.

The response never explicitly denies my claims. In fact, it states that while they found my claims were “technically correct,” they felt the need to clarify because the facts are portrayed in a “negative light.” So, let’s break down their rebuttal.

In their statement, they argue that it’s “incorrect and inaccurate” to suggest that the Superintendent had access to over $100,000,000 in safety funds because the money was made available to the district in increments. Here is the current year by year incremental appropriations that they’re referring to, taken straight from the district’s website.

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In this breakdown, it’s clear that although the over $100 million was made fully available this year, they had an average of roughly $28 million appropriated each year for their safety programs. So while the $100 million wasn’t available day one, the district consistently received tens of millions of dollars for safety programs throughout the years. In the interest of transparency, I will break down year by year expenditures versus the budget that was made available.

This can get a little confusing, so I’ve highlighted the relevant parts and did the math for you. We will refer to the first chart to determine how much money was appropriated.

  • In the 1st & 2nd Fiscal Years, $57.5 million was budgeted for safety projects. In those years, $364,368 was spent, about 0.60% of the year’s safety budget. On the chart, you’ll see that music, art, and technology programs received more than $50 million in that same time period.

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  • In the 3rd Fiscal Year, we find that $82.5 million is budgeted for safety projects. At the end of the third fiscal year, $2.8 million was spent total, roughly 3.3% of the year’s safety budget. Again you’ll notice that music, art, and technology programs are prioritized with nearly $80 million spent in the same period.

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  • In the 4th Fiscal Year, $104.3 million is budgeted for safety projects. Halfway into the 4th fiscal year, a total of $2.4 million has been spent, roughly 2.3% of the year’s safety budget. For the fourth year in a row, you’ll see music, art, and technology programs prioritized with over safety with over $86 million spent in the same period.

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  • In the 5th Fiscal Year, the district will receive additional funding that will bring the total safety funds allocated to over $130 million.

Onto the next claim. In their response, officials alleged that I’m “not interested in being accurate or fair to Superintendent Runcie or to the School Board” for excluding $9.1 million that the district has “committed” but not yet spent. This includes contracts, purchase orders, or requisitions.

The reason for this omission is because committed funds mean little until the money is actually spent. On multiple occasions, contract negotiations with the district have been thrown out. Even if I were to include $9 million in commitments, the difference is negligible. If their defense is that they didn’t spend a mere 5%, but in fact spent and committed 9%, then they’re acknowledging that the vast majority of the safety money has gone unspent.

They also argue that a fiscal year’s budget doesn’t indicate an intention to spend it within that year. If there was no intention to spend more than a couple million per year, why was an average of $27 million budgeted each fiscal year? The argument doesn’t hold water. In some instances, the Superintendent claims that they had trouble securing the funds in initial years and didn’t realize the process of obtaining the funds until the bond was passed. If true, that’s just an additional case for incompetence.

At the end of the statement, Dominic Calabro claims, “Mr. Preston is expressly clear in his intent to bring down the Superintendent and the Board. I think it is unfortunate that, instead of focusing on issues and solutions like so many of his young colleagues, he is looking to lay blame on Superintendent Runcie and members of the Board.”

In the absence of substantive answers, they resorted to character attacks. If Superintendent Runcie and Mr. Calabro, don’t believe school safety to be a real issue, I’d be happy to explain.

Rather than condemning his students for seeking answers, I would urge Superintendent Robert Runcie to focus his attention on encouraging lively debate among students that don’t necessarily push the most popular narrative. When tragedy strikes, leaders should be prepared to answer tough questions. Months after the shooting at Stoneman, Broward officials are still falling short of that.

Kenneth Preston is a student journalist based in Broward County, Florida. You can follow him on Twitter @kennethrpreston