Candidates agree achievement gaps, COVID-19, budget challenges are top priorities

Candidates running for Alachua County School Board, Alachua County Commission and Property Appraiser acknowledged during a virtual forum on Sunday (July 19th) that the COVID-19 pandemic has defined their top priorities and shaped their platforms.

League of Women Voters

In the first virtual Primary Election forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Alachua County voters and hosted by Co-chairs of Voter Services Debra Shimon and Diane Dimperio, more than a dozen candidates dialed in on ZOOM to give their background information and answer questions.
Alachua County Commission District 1 candidate Mary Alford said, “It’s not going to be a fun time to be a commissioner,” because of the seriousness of  dealing with pandemic and budget issues. She brought up climate disruption and the importance of taking care of food sources. Making fundamental healthcare available to all residents is a must, she said.
And affordable housing efforts should also focus on keeping people in the houses they are already in because many are at risk of losing their home.
She said she would like to see a “less conservative building department” that would allow for adding more tiny houses and smaller houses in future development and also allow for co-housing so that many adults could live in the same household as extended families.
She thinks the County should revisit vacancy tax and said she is in favor of increasing the solar canopy, however energy is often wasted. For example, fixing leaky roofs and adding insulation will also make a home more energy efficient.
Current County Commissioner Mike Byerly has a background in zoology, journalism and ecology and makes environmental protection a priority.
He said the three biggest challenges facing Alachua County right now are the pandemic, the “not quite as visible” need to prepare ahead for climate change and the economic fallout from the pandemic because of loss of the tax base.
Byerly wants to “make sure that our budget represents community values.”
He said that a lot of issues need to be dealt with at the state and national levels such as affordable housing. “We are in a position of treating symptoms but need state and national assistance,” he said.
Byerly said he lived off the grid for five years and agrees that energy efficiency starts with small efforts such as caulking and lifestyle changes, “that bring down demands on the system.”
School Board District 2 candidates
Khanh-Lein Banko has four kids in public schools, is active in leading the PTA and pushed for the half-cent sales tax. She said she has walked every campus to understand the unique needs and is prepared to move forward in the areas of parent engagement and closing achievement gaps.
Candidate Diyonne McGraw has been involved in the public school system on boards and the PTA. McGraw said the achievement gap and the high percentage of African-Americans who can’t read and do math is unacceptable. She wants a task force to form to develop ways to improve reading and comprehension skills. EEE: Education, experience, exposure is the mantra to follow, McGraw said and wants more emphasis on vocational programs since not every student goes to college.
School Board District 4 candidates
Sande Calkins wants to make sure we are educating future civic leaders. She has been a part of the Education Association for 38 years with non instructional employees and has set her priorities on finding solutions to providing living wages, reducing student absenteeism, achievement gaps, and finding a way to secure the safety of students and staff.
Current School Board Member Leanetta McNealy spent 38 years as an educator putting children first. She said, “All children in Alachua County deserve a high level of education,” and that she wants to work to bridge the achievement gap.
Alachua County Property Appraiser
Candidate Matt Geiger said he pledged to protect homes and businesses and wants to work to make citizens aware of their taxpayer rights. He is dedicated to accurate property valuation and an advocate for transparent government.
Candidate Susan McQuillan has been involved in church, PTA , and real estate for 30 years including development and title management.
Candidate Wendy Sapp has served as a field appraiser measuring houses and cares about her co-workers at the appraiser’s office, employers and taxpayers.
She said the new property appraiser will have their work cut out for them because all County properties will need to be appraised by July 1st, 2021.
Candidate Ayesha Solomon is from East Gainesville and grew up with a single parent mom. She started working at the Appraiser’s Office at age 21 in customer service, and said she is “rooted in community and invested in their job.” She said she will bring stability and transparency to the job and enhance community outreach.
Candidate Kelly Suggs said he has 30 years of property valuation experience in residential, commercial and industrial properties and that his experience makes him the best candidate for the job.
Alachua County Commission District 3
Candidate Anna Prizzia’s background in building the office of sustainability at UF makes her an environmental advocate. She believes in protecting home rule but thinks the County and municipalities should “also be able to join forces against big issues” such as climate change.
Her interest in regional planning, focusing on transit and core of cities and infilling and development. She said she wants to collaborate with neighborhoods to develop smart, but with culture in mind.
She wants to restructure county funding and demilitarize the police force. She also wants to focus funding on creating a unified intake center, a space where someone with addictions could have services provided instead of being put into a prison pipeline.
She “agrees systemic racism” is a problem and that a majority of healthcare should come before someone gets sick by giving residents access to outdoor parks, healthy food, and preventative treatment. There is a need for clinics in East Gainesville and access to healthy food and recreation.
Candidate Jason Stanford was born and raised in Alachua County  and graduated from Hawthorne High School. He said his background in public health service for community healthcare gives him an edge stepping into service during a pandemic.
He see the trend of Florida legislature encroaching and is for home rule when a large city and many small cities all want to grow. “What works in Hawthorne doesn’t work in Newberry,” he said. 
Stanford worked at the CDC and he also said that even though Alachua County is not a coastal area, migration and geological changes still impact Central Florida.
“South Florida will want to move here, make sure we prepare for people to move here,” he said. We can’t let folks lose their land, and we can’t build on swamps.”
Stanford said increased funding for mental services is a must. “It’s not a crime to have a substance abuse issue or mental issue,” he said “And they don’t need to see a police officer, they need to see a mental health pro.”
He disagrees with police officers showing up with machine guns for someone having a breakdown.
He pointed to “systemic racism” and said that African American have been denied the right to healthcare. “We don’t have an ER on the east side of Alachua County. Stand up and demand it. COVID is real, dangerous and we need to look out for the least of us.”
Candidate Kevin Thorpe also discussed COVID-19 and George Floyd. His priorities lie with addressing air and water quality, growing the workforce and equality and criminal justice reform.
He addressed the inequity in health care. “When wealthy communities get a cold, the rest get pneumonia,” he said.
And while there are a number of programs in the county to assist low-income people, Thorpe said there is more to do such as changing the income for people struggling. If they are better employed and have disposable income, they have better access to healthcare.

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