The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) has its first-ever all-female board.
“I didn’t know this until recently, so it’s exciting knowing that we are still in a time of firsts,” incoming SBAC Chair Tina Certain said in an interview.
At a special meeting on Tuesday, Certain, a returning board member, along with three new members, Diyonne McGraw, Sarah Rockwell, and Kay Abbitt, took the oath of office to join the SBAC.
“I am hopeful for the new people coming on and that we will work together collaboratively with a high-functioning board,” Certain said. “I hope the board will be able to provide some guidance and leadership for our staff so that we can make a difference in our students’ lives.”
Working together is something the last school board struggled to do. Tension and verbal sparring repeatedly marked school board meetings over the last two years, including over the hiring of Superintendent Carlee Simon, her performance reviews, and her eventual dismissal last March.
McGraw rejoins the SBAC after defeating Mildred Russell 57% to 43% in the August elections. McGraw held the position from November 2020 until June 2021, when Gov. Ron DeSantis declared her seat vacant because she lived outside the district she was elected to represent.
“It’s not about me, but our children,” McGraw said. “I am ready, willing and able to move toward a path of healing. This board, all five women, can work together. We need to prepare our students to meet challenges and seize opportunities.”
McGraw also touched upon her future goals of addressing discipline concerns across the district, holding parents accountable, prioritizing academically and structurally failing schools, and giving resources to teachers and staff.
Rockwell, a former special education teacher, ran against Ray Holt for Gunnar Paulson’s SBAC District 3 seat. She won 58% of the votes, making this her first time elected to the board.
Rockwell believes the board will create a strategic plan to help the children succeed and help solve the behavioral issues facing buses and classrooms.
Abbitt moves into the District 5 seat, formerly occupied by Chair Rob Hyatt, after beating Prescott Cowles.
In her victory speech, she thanked her family, friends, fellow board members, and those in attendance on election night. She predicted that the new board will be able to work well together and stressed the importance of creating a strategic plan.
Leanetta McNealy, who holds the District 4 seat, didn’t have to be sworn in since she is the only school board member whose seat was not up for re-election.
Each member gave a glimpse into what goals they have moving forward on the school board; some overlap, and some do not.
The five women attended a board orientation organized by Certain on Oct. 27. At the orientation, board members took the time to discuss the most pressing issues in the district.
“We really think one of our main focuses is improving the achievement gap, especially the performance and the schools that are under state oversight,” Certain said. “We must address the formulation of a new strategic plan for the district. It’s been over 10 years since a plan has been done.”
Following the swearing-in on Tuesday, the annual School Board Organization Meeting commenced, led by interim Superintendent Shane Andrew. The board elected Certain as the new chair and McNealy as vice chair in a unanimous 5-0 vote.