McGraw recaptures school board seat

Sheila Baker-Bell waves and greets voters at the T.B. McPherson Recreation Center on Tuesday.
Sheila Baker-Bell waves and greets voters at the T.B. McPherson Recreation Center on Tuesday. (Photo by Seth Johnson)
Alachua County School Board incumbent Tina Certain
Photo by Megan Winslow Alachua County School Board incumbent Tina Certain (in white shirt) is all smiles at her election watch party on Tuesday.

Diyonne McGraw defeated Mildred Russell to recapture the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) District 2 seat in Tuesday’s municipal elections. 

McGraw will rejoin the SBAC after Gov. Ron DeSantis removed her last year because she lived a few hundred feet outside the district she represented. McGraw sued DeSantis, but a circuit court and a federal judge upheld the decision.

McGraw defeated Russell 57% to 43%. Russell, whom DeSantis appointed to the board last August, lost despite outraising McGraw $40,681 to $28,929.

Alachua County School Board candidate Sarah Rockwell at an election watch party on Tuesday.
Photo by Megan Winslow Alachua County School Board candidate Sarah Rockwell at an election watch party on Tuesday.

“My mission continues to be the same,” McGraw said at the Souls to the Polls event on August 14, adding she wants to increase vocational programming and mental and behavioral health support. “We want all our children in Alachua County to improve their reading skills.”

SBAC terms are for four years, but the special election to fill the last two years of McGraw’s term put Alachua County voters in the unusual position of selecting four out of five school board members at one time.

District 1 incumbent and SBAC Vice Chair Tina Certain also claimed victory Tuesday night to earn a second term. She beat challenger Daniel Fisher with more than 60% of the vote.

“Tonight, with our victory, we stood against Tallahassee,” Certain said to supporters gathered at Cypress & Grove Brewery Company, alluding to money that flowed into the race from outside the county.

Candidate Sarah Rockwell—who beat Ray Holt with 58% of the vote—struck a similar tone in her victory speech.

Alachua County School Board candidate Daniel Fisher
Photo by Taryn Ashby Alachua County School Board candidate Daniel Fisher speaks at an election watch party on Tuesday.

“Tonight, you, the voters of Alachua County, have issued a mandate,” Rockwell said to the same Cypress & Grove crowd. “You have said that you want leaders who care about public education, who respect and value teachers, and who want to make sure all students succeed. And you have said no to attempts to privatize our schools, to de-professionalize our teaching force, and to create distrust for our teachers and censor them.”

Rockwell is a former special education who opposes the Florida Standardized Assessment and says the superintendent should be able to address the achievement gap.  

Rockwell is one of two new incoming school board members—although early returns left some question about who the other one would be. The closest race of the night was between Kay Abbitt, a retired educator who opened a high-performing charter school in northeast Gainesville, and Prescott Cowles, a 26-year-old special projects manager for Alachua County Public Schools.  

The two candidates were neck-and-neck as early returns came in, but Abbitt pulled away late and registered a comfortable 8-point win.

Alachua County School Board candidate Ray Holt
Photo by Taryn Ashby Alachua County School Board candidate Ray Holt on Tuesday at an election watch party.

“I have a lot of experience and am very qualified to work on the school board,” Abbitt said at the Souls to the Polls event. “I also have ideas for changing our community, and I think our time is now to make those changes.”

Russell, Holt and Fisher held a joint watch party in Jonesville and said they were pleased with the turnout they were able to generate.

“I can’t thank you enough for your work—getting the word out and waving signs,” Russell told supporters. “It really was fun.”

Tuesday’s elections come after two years of change and tension at the school district. Certain, McGraw and then-SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy installed Superintendent Carlee Simon over the concerns of the other two school board members, Gunnar Paulson and current SBAC Chair Rob Hyatt, and formed a consistent voting bloc that will now be reunited.

Simon’s tenure was marked by a string of controversies, including masking policies, a reorganization plan, Simon’s qualifications, performance and contract, and other matters.

A split school board fired Simon in March and installed longtime district employee Shane Andrew as interim superintendent. Board members agreed the new school board should conduct the search for a permanent replacement.

Alachua County School Board candidate Mildred Russell
Photo by Taryn Ashby Alachua County School Board candidate Mildred Russell talks to guests at an election watch party on Tuesday.
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M Walls

Are you guys investigating the shortage of Republican ballots at the polls?