Bickering school board finally reaches agreement

A large “civility pledge” is displayed on the wall behind the dais in the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) meeting room. It reads: “We will be respectful of one another even when we disagree. We will direct all comments to the issues. We will avoid personal attacks.”

It’s hard to imagine a time when that pledge has been more flaunted than it was at Tuesday night’s SBAC meeting—even after a local pastor pleaded with the board to “put people over politics.” 

The nearly four-hour school board meeting was filled with parents and teachers imploring the board to trust in the vision of the new superintendent but also there were threats, arguing and several recesses that caused the meeting to last until nearly 10 p.m. It came days after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Diyonne McGraw’s seat vacant based on her residency in the district adjoining the one she was elected to serve. It also came hours after McGraw filed a legal challenge to the governor’s authority on the matter. 

It took the first half of the meeting to turn the attention of attendees and the SBAC off the topic of McGraw, but the proceeding kept dragging despite an agenda with only one item on it: A request for approval of proposed new and amended job descriptions for the administrative, professional/technical, and education support professionals of Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS).

Just before before 10 p.m., the now four-member board agreed to fast track about a dozen of the nearly 40 job descriptions that ACPS Superintendent Carlee Simon had mapped out for approval.

Those jobs are in the areas of safety and security, evaluation, accountability and analytics, curriculum and instruction, finance and business services, equity, inclusion and community engagement, and operations.

In order for Simon to move forward with filling the jobs and using $90 million in ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds to get the ball rolling, she needed the board to make it official.

But each time a vote came up, the 2 to 2 tie would result in a no pass situation.

Dr. Leanetta McNealy, chair of the Alachua County School Board

SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy gave several speeches and finally handed the gavel to Vice Chair Tina Certain so McNealy could make a motion to go one by one through each and every job description—the equivalent of a filibuster that would drag out the meeting into the wee hours.

Meeting goers said they were up for the task and ready to speak to each individual item. SBAC member Gunnar Paulson expressed that he wasn’t up for an all nighter and board member Rob Hyatt was getting upset with the threats and insults directed toward him.

Throughout the evening, several dozens of parents, teachers and involved citizens came to the podium to be heard. They brought up McGraw, finding creative ways to work her name into the strict agenda-item-only discussion.

McGraw sat quietly in the audience taking notes during the meeting and was joined by her attorney, who sat through two hours of the meeting.

Outside the meeting room, about two dozen McGraw supporters watched the proceeding on screens and expressed their support with homemade signs.

But it was the exchange of dialogue happening inside the board room that demanded attention. At one point McNealy declared that the entire SBAC needed to go on a retreat to figure out a way to tolerate each other and serve the community.

In spite of a “no confidence” petition circulating in the community, no member of the public spoke against approval of Simon’s job descriptions. Still, Paulson and Hyatt voted down the job description amendments on the first try.

Throughout the evening meeting goers in the boardroom called Hyatt and Paulson racists, old men, and talked under their breath when they didn’t like the discussion on the dais.

One commenter was asked to leave, and McNealy and Hyatt both looked to the attorney several times for order and to the law enforcement in the room when citizen comments crossed the line.

In-person attendees and phone callers spoke of how ashamed and embarrassed they were with the board’s behavior and inability to get along and make progress on behalf of students, faculty and staff.

Rev. Karl Smith, senior pastor of the Greater Bethel AME Church in Gainesville, tried to appeal to the adults in the room.

“It’s time to shine,” he said. “Leadership is needed and it takes courage. More of the same brings more of the same.

He challenged the board to stay focused on the mission of the success of every student in Alachua County.

“We can’t delay,” he added. “Delay means we’re stuck and being stuck means failure.”

It took more than an hour for the SBAC to calm down and finally move to approve a dozen of the job descriptions in a 3 to 1 vote with Hyatt in dissension.

The board agreed to revisit the rest of the job descriptions at a special meeting at 11 a.m. on Monday.

Rev. Karl Smith, senior pastor of Greater Bethel AME Church in Gainesville
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