Newberry calls emergency meeting over SBAC drama

At an April 10 Newberry City Commission meeting, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe asked a pointed question to newly appointed Superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools Carlee Simon.

Simons's response, coupled with the recent discovery of School Board of Alachua County member Diyonne McGraw's violation of the residency requirement to hold the District 2 Seat, has led to the calling of an emergency meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The one-item agenda reads: "Potential Action Items Regarding Recent Events with the School Board of Alachua County." According to Marlowe, that action could include a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a resolution of no confidence, or potential legal action.

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At the April 10 meeting, Marlowe, who is also a history teacher at Newberry High School, asked Simon if the money collected by the county half-cent sales tax that is earmarked for school improvement projects will be spent as planned.

"There are going to be changes," Simon responded. "That money is for addressing the aging facilities as well as the enrollment concerns. We are re-looking at how it's all falling out.

The answer did not sit well with Marlowe, who campaigned for passage of the half-cent sales tax, including showing videos of what specifically would be improved or fixed at the three Newberry schools that have more than 2,000 students enrolled.

He said that at that meeting Simon essentially went on the record saying she intends to throw out the projects list developed to use the half-cent sales tax.

"A lot of community work went into saying what each school needed," Marlowe said in a phone interview. "Principals, administrators, communities, PTAs—I went out on a limb and campaigned and advocated for that tax explaining to voters that the money would be earmarked for local projects."

Simon explained that Newberry Elementary School (NES) would likely get more funding if her plan to move fifth grade back to that school from Oak View Middle School leads to construction of additional space to NES.

But Marlowe says that plan is unacceptable. He said no changes to earmarked funds should occur after communities and school administrators helped form the prioritized projects list, especially given the controversy over whether McGraw should be allowed to vote on those decisions.

"If a duly elected board chooses to change their mind, I may disagree, and that's their prerogative," Marlowe said. "If McGraw, who is not denying she doesn't live in her district, decided to vote to do away with promises that were made, in my mind, that's an entirely different situation. Now I have a board member who should not be in that seat making decisions about whether or not we should keep promises with tax dollars and that I think deserves a conversation from my board."

On Tuesday a circuit court judge ruled that McGraw could continue voting while litigation continues. 

"There is insufficient evidence of irreparable injury to establish the right to injunctive relief," wrote Judge Donna Keim regarding a case brought by McGraw's 2020 opponent and three other citizens. 

Outside of McGraw's legal issues, Simon has received community pushback on her reorganization plans, including a "no confidence" petition that has garnered more than 1,300 signatures. The petition surfaced after Simon made changes to administrative positions, which included opting not to rehire principals and creating new or amended job descriptions of others.

"Throughout the past 6 months, we have witnessed Dr. Simon’s abrupt interim appointment to the swift permanent appointment, we have had concerns regarding Dr. Simon’s leadership, specifically concerning trust, collaboration, decision-making, vision, communication, her lack of respect for parents and staff, and her inability to create positive working relationships with staff members and the community," the petition states.

The Newberry Commission features members who all have ties to the public school system. Their children and grandchildren are either currently attending Newberry schools or have graduated from them.

"At the very least, Newberry is duty bound to make sure every single promise that was made for every single school in Alachua County is not in jeopardy," Marlowe said. 

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