Meet the Candidates: Alachua County School Board

The Alachua County Public Schools district will have four open seats this election cycle.
Photo by Seth Johnson

Editor’s Note
This is the first in a series of stories Mainstreet Daily News is running to provide you more information about the candidates who have qualified for the upcoming elections.

Four of the five Alachua County School Board seats are up for election in August, and two candidates have qualified for each of the non-partisan races.

Leanetta McNealy, who holds the District 4 seat, is the only school board member whose seat is not up for re-election. Gunnar F. Paulson, who holds the District 3 seat, is not running for re-election.

Become A Member

Mainstreet does not have a paywall, but pavement-pounding journalism is not free. Join your neighbors who make this vital work possible.

Tina Certain, the SBAC’s vice chair, will face Daniel Fisher for the District 1 seat. 

The District 2 school board race features a former member versus her governor-appointed replacement. Business owner Diyonne McGraw was removed by Gov. Ron DeSantis for not living in the district she represented in June 2021. Mildred Russell, the former chair of the local Republican Party, was appointed to replace McGraw in August 2021. They both will be on the August ballot.

Ray Holt, a business owner, cattle rancher and former Jacksonville City Council member, and Sarah Rockwell, a freelance editor and former special education teacher, will compete for the District 3 seat currently held by Paulson.

The District 5 race will feature retired educator Kay Abbitt going up against Prescott Cowles, who is special projects manager for the Alachua County Public School system’s Office of Evaluation, Accountability, and Data Analytics.

SEAT 1: 

Both Tina Certain and Daniel Fisher will run for Seat 1 on the school board. Certain currently sits in the seat, elected in 2018 to serve her first term. 

Courtesy of Tina Certain Tina Certain

Candidate: Tina Certain

Age: 54

Occupation: Accountant, CMA (Certified Management Accountant)

Previous experience in elected office: Elected to School Board 2018

Public service other than elected office: Co-Founder of Education Task Force, NAACP Education Committee, Girl Scout leader, adult trainer, service unit treasurer, Gnv4All Education committee, School Board Member: Children’s Trust Board Vice-Chair, United Way Community Investment Committee, City of Alachua Planning Board, Fla School Board Association Treasurer 2021-2022, and FSBA President Elect 2022-2023.

Candidate Media: Website

What prompted you to run for re-election? The main reason I decided to run is I felt ignored as a citizen advocating to improve student outcomes of Black students. I co-found a group (Alachua County Education Task Force, ETF) that compiled student performance data on state assessment, we looked at enrollment in magnet and advanced learning programs and saw large disparities existed. When we tried to engage with the District—Board, Superintendent and Administrative staff—we were ignored initially, then given a meeting with the hope of dismissing our concerns.

What are the two most important issues facing the school board? There are many important issues but since you’ve just asked for two, I’d start with recruiting and retaining teachers and support staff. Alachua County, like other districts, is experiencing critical staffing shortages, which are impacting service levels. The other is work to improve instructional practices and student academic performance.

What do you hope to accomplish as part of the school board? In addition to my response in question 7, I hope to complete: develop a Strategic plan for the District, improve attendance, develop district-wide discipline plan, review of budget and oversight of ESSER funds, county-wide rezoning to address under enrollment in east and overcrowding in west.

Courtesy of Daniel Fisher Daniel Fisher

Candidate: Daniel Fisher

Age: 55

Occupation: Chief Master Sergeant, USAF Ret., Currently I teach 10 & 11th grade English at Williston Middle High School

Public service other than elected office (boards, committees, advisory groups): Yuba Community College Business Advisory Board, Marysville, CA

Candidate Media: Website

What prompted you to run for office? First and foremost, I am concerned with the push to eliminate or reduce basic standards of education.  We are losing our way as we continue turning our focus on things and issues that take away from our ability to prioritize the fundamentals of learning.  There are many worthy causes, but we cannot allow ourselves to sacrifice our students’ ability to read, write, critically think, and do math.  If we focus on the fundamentals, our students will be able to critically think through, and develop solutions for the many issues facing our country and society. 

Second, because I grew up poor and in a dysfunctional home, education helped me overcome the challenges associated with poverty. Because of this experience, I have a passion for education, believing it is the great equalizer, and I strongly believe education is the best way to ensure people can succeed in life to the level they determine for themselves.

What are the two most important issues facing the school board? Safety in the classroom and on buses and the number of students who are below grade level in math, English and science.

What are the two most important issues facing the school board? Safety in the classroom and on buses and the number of students who are below grade level in math, English and science.

What do you hope to accomplish as part of the school board? I desire to return the focus of the board to student-centered academic performance. The board needs to work as a team, along with the community, parents, caregivers, teachers, and staff, to create an environment that encourages excellence in every aspect of the education process. I will work to unify the community so together we can tackle the many issues facing the district. 

We must return safety to the classroom, better fund our ESE programs, and address the glaring problem of low performance in math, English and science in our schools. The board cannot continue to dismiss their own admitted dysfunction, and continue to ignore the major, pressing issues facing the schools and the community.

SEAT 2: 

Courtesy of Diyonne McGraw Diyonne McGraw

Candidate: Diyonne McGraw

Age: 53

Occupation: Business Owner

Previous experience in elected office: I was elected to the Alachua County School Board in August 2020 by a majority vote.

Public service other than the elected office: I have been very active in the community and I either currently serve or have served: vice president of Martin Luther King Commission of FL, served on the Alachua County Forever Board for 5 years, served on the City of Gainesville Recreation Board, vice president of African-American Accountability Alliance, president of 4AS PAC, president of School Advisory Council at P.K. Yonge, School Advisory Council at Gainesville High School, School Advisory Council at A-Quinn Jones, City of Gainesville Blue Ribbon and Big Idea Committees, Chamber of Commerce I-3 Steering Committee

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for office/run for re-election? The increasing decline in student performance, the growing achievement gap, the soaring need for more vocational/job-readiness programs that prepare students to earn a living wage, a focus on mental health intervention services, and the need for more transparency and community engagement in school board operations.

What are the two most important issues facing the school board? The growing achievement gap and lack of appropriate support and programming to help address the socioemotional needs of all students, disciplinary issues, and inequities that hinder progress for kids as well as teachers.

What do you hope to accomplish as part of the school board? I will work to ensure every student has access to quality programming in a safe, equitable environment and every staff member feels safe and supported so they can meet the diverse needs of every student. Some goals are to increase vocational programming, ramp up behavioral and mental health supports, and engage external as well as internal stakeholders in problem-solving efforts to improve the entire community.

Photo by Seth Johnson Mildred Russell

Candidate: Mildred Russell

I am 73 years wise.

School Board Member

Previous experience:  I served as Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, and State Committeewoman of the local Republican Party.

I served on the Front Porch Florida Committee, The Alachua County Republican Executive Committee, The Republican Party of Florida State Executive Committee, Chaired the Ballot Integrity Program, conducted Orientations for New Members to the ACREC, recruited and trained volunteers.

What prompted you to run for office/run for re-election? I want to continue on the School Board because I believe that the Board’s first job is to improve student outcomes.  The Board should be proactive in finding ways to address the issues facing us, such as early learning literacy and behavior issues. Every decision the Board makes should result in improved outcomes for all students.  I want to have a part in providing a world class education for our students while partnering with parents.

What are the two most important issues facing the school board? It is hard to narrow down to two what the most important issues facing the School Board are.  Certainly at the top are behavioral issues and putting all students first in every decision. We need to address students who have behavioral issues with a desired result of changed behavior. In my opinion, it is unkind to the student and to his/her classmates and to the teachers to let bad behavior continue repeatedly.  I will advocate for measures and programs that will help our students who have problems overcome their challenges so that they can grow in character and succeed in school. 

What do you hope to accomplish as part of the school board? As a School Board member, I will be committed to improving student outcomes, putting students first in every decision. I want to help students with behavioral issues overcome their challenges. I will improve school readiness by having a voluntary pre-kindergarten in every Elementary School. I want to partner with parents in providing a great education for their children. I will be part of the process of hiring a Superintendent in the proper manner, and with community input.

SEAT 3: 

Courtesy of Ray Holt Ray Holt

Candidate: Ray Holt

Age: 51

Occupation: Business owner and cattle rancher

Previous experience in elected office: City Council Member – Jacksonville, FL

Public service other than elected office: Alachua County Schools – District Advisory Council, JCCI Children 1-2-3 Task Force, North Florida Transportation Planning Organization

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for the Alachua County School Board?

We have a very unique and wonderful place to live. But part of what makes a community great is being able to prepare our future leaders in excellent public schools. It became obvious to me after the pandemic that our schools were underperforming – that our school board and their policies have put our schools and our students into a downward spiral. When I saw that only 47% of our students are reading and doing math at their grade level, I knew I had to do something. 

What are the two most important issues facing the Alachua County School Board?

The two most important issues we face, safety and academic performance, are intertwined to a great extent. Our schools aren’t as safe as they could be, and they aren’t fostering an effective learning environment. By far, the most common complaint I’ve heard from parents, teachers and even students is student behavior – constant disruptions in class, fights every day in the hallway or on buses, and even threats against our hardworking teachers. 

The administration has discouraged following the code of conduct and naturally that has exacerbated the problem. Our schools aren’t just at risk from outside threats, they are also at risk from a failure by the administration to support teachers in their classroom discipline decisions. But worst of all is the failure to even acknowledge the problem. 

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of Alachua County School Board?

First, bring back a safe and effective learning environment. That, combined with added focus on reading and math tutoring, will bring an immediately positive effect. There are other issues too, like crumbling infrastructure, but let’s face facts, when our children aren’t learning what they should in order to be prepared for a good future, that’s unacceptable! 

Courtesy of Sarah Rockwell Sarah Rockwell

Candidate: Sarah Rockwell

Age: 40

Occupation: Freelance editor, but currently not taking clients to focus on the campaign

Public service other than elected office: Member of First United Methodist Church Council, Chair of First UMC Preschool Advisory Board; member of Exceptional Student Education Committee of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida; former accessibility coordinator for Indivisible Gainesville

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for the Alachua County School Board? 

As a former special education teacher and mom of 2 kids with disabilities, I know the difficulties teachers and parents face. I know that I will be a strong advocate for public education and be able to support both teachers and families. 

What are the two most important issues facing the Alachua County School Board? 

The current teacher and staff shortage is a huge issue. Teachers and staff need to feel supported, respected and appreciated as professionals rather than feeling censored and persecuted, so that they want to work in our schools. 

The other critical issue is closing the achievement gap between black and white students. We must make sure that all of our students are reading by third grade, regardless of their race, disability status, or which school they attend. I believe that focusing on K-2 phonics instruction and partnering with community organizations to improve out of school time programs and tutoring options are two ways to narrow the achievement gap.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of Alachua County School Board? 

I hope to create a welcoming work environment that allows us to recruit and retain excellent teachers and staff members, put into place reading and out of school time programs to help close the achievement gap, improve our special education programs, conduct a search for the next superintendent that is transparent and includes community input, and conduct district-wide rezoning with community input.

SEAT 5: 

Courtesy of Kay Abbitt Kay Abbitt

Candidate: Kay Abbitt

Age: 68

Occupation: retired educator

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for the Alachua County School Board?  

I have been involved in education all of my adult life.  I have taught in Alachua County Schools. Eight years ago, I  opened a high performing charter school in NE Gainesville.  I opened it because schools in NE Gainesville were not serving the needs of their students.  

As I retire this month, nothing has changed – the schools that were failing 8 years ago are still failing.  Discipline issues are rampant throughout all district schools. The current board is dysfunctional and little is being done to address district problems.  I have the experience and open-mindedness to work to solve these problems.

What are the two most important issues facing the Alachua County School Board?

Unfortunately, the current board is unable to work together to make important policy decisions that are needed to solve district problems.  The two most important issues that need to be addressed are out of control behavior in schools and creating a plan to ensure that all district schools are providing quality education to the students they serve.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of Alachua County School Board?

I hope to be able to work with the school board and superintendent to establish and enforce policy that will ensure that there are no “D” or “F” schools in our district.

courtesy of Prescott Cowles Prescott Cowles

Candidate: Prescott Cowles

Age: 26

Occupation: Special projects manager in the Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) Office of Evaluation, Accountability, and Data Analytics

Public service other than elected office (boards, committees, advisory groups): 

Led the ACPS COVID-19 Response Team; developed the first ACPS Teacher Advisory Committee; member of the collaborative team for the City of Gainesville’s “Improving Community Health and Resilience through the Arts” Initiative; former science teacher at a public Title I middle school in Hillsborough County

Candidate media: Website

What prompted you to run for the Alachua County School Board?

I led the school district’s COVID response and worked with every school to keep their students and staff safe. I understand the obstacles that impact the learning and working conditions in our public schools, and I’ve proven that I can turn input into meaningful action to address these concerns. 

I have worked to connect problems to solutions across our school district. I know the problems that our schools still face firsthand, and I’m ready to work on solutions so that our public schools can not just survive, but thrive. 

What are the two most important issues facing the Alachua County School Board?

Our school district still faces monumental challenges – from leadership in Tallahassee that is determined to destroy public education to the systemic inequities that have persisted in our county for generations – and the collective trauma of the pandemic just underscores the need for urgency. 

I know that overcoming the challenges that our school district faces will be incredibly difficult, but it is entirely possible and it is absolutely necessary.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of Alachua County School Board?

Our schools need a champion with the endurance to push forward meaningful changes that restore and reinforce the dignity of our educators as professionals, and keep our high-quality teachers in the classrooms with the students who need them. 

Our community needs leaders who will stand strong in their commitment to providing safe and inclusive classrooms where every child can learn, who won’t back down in the face of threats from Tallahassee, and who will fight to protect public education from profit-seekers and their politicians. 

This is a new era in public education, and I know that I am the new generation of leadership with the endurance to withstand the attacks and still push our district forward. 

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lee Ann C Inkel

Would have seemed a little more fair to pull a better photo of Mildred Russell, such as one where she isn’t speaking.