Petitions pressure Alachua County school district

Two growing petitions are roiling Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) as community members take aim at the superintendent and a school board member.

More than 1,200 people have signed a “No Confidence” petition against ACPS Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon, who became interim superintendent only six months ago, while a newer petition calling for the resignation of school board member Diyonne McGraw, who took office last November, has attracted more than 450 signatures. Although the petitions are unrelated, they are concurrently putting the spotlight on major change happening within the school district in Alachua County.

The petition against McGraw, which was started Wednesday, takes issue with her residency. The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office issued the following statement verifying that McGraw lives in District 4, even though she ran in District 2.

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“The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections is aware of claims that a 2020 candidate for the Alachua County School Board does not reside in the School Board district to which she was elected in August 2020,” the statement reads. “The address on the candidate’s Candidate Oath is located within District 4 of the Alachua County School Board. The candidate qualified and was elected to serve in District 2.

Diyonne McGraw

“While it is the candidate’s responsibility to understand qualifying requirements, our office does provide guidance to all candidates. Although the Supervisor of Elections Office does not have investigative authority, it will work with the proper authorities or investigative bodies to share information as it is requested and needed.”

The petition says even if McGraw were to move, Florida law requires district residency throughout a term on the school board. 

“Complaints have been filed with the agencies that directly oversee these matters, but we are asking Ms. McGraw to not drag out the process and to vacate the position immediately,” the petition says. “Our teachers and students have gone through a chaotic and traumatic year in our schools, and they deserve to settle this matter in a peaceful and quick way. Our citizens deserve a free and fair election represented by a School Board Member who lives in the district they represent.”

With the addition of McGraw to the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC), a voting bloc of McGraw, Dr. Leanetta McNealy and District 1 representative Tina Certain has reigned from the dais, often countering motions and votes made by the other two board members, Dr. Gunnar Paulson and Rob Hyatt.

Such was the case when the board named Simon interim superintendent in December, then promoted her to full-time status, raised her salary—from $160,000 to $175,000—and extended her contract through June 2023.

At the March 16 regular SBAC meeting, board members Dr. Gunnar Paulson and Robert Hyatt raised concerns about extending Simon’s contract into 2023 and the elevated salary. Hyatt offered an amendment to keep the salary at $160,000 and end the contract on Dec. 31, 2022. But McGraw, McNealy and Certain brushed aside the concerns and approved the motion on a 3-2 vote.

The Simon petition, which went live a week ago, decries a recent reorganization plan that includes not renewing nine school administrators for next school year.

“This letter is an expression of our “Vote of No Confidence” in Dr. Carlee Simon and her ability to run our schools,” the petition states. “We understand the severity of this decision and did not arrive at it hastily.” 

The reorganization plan has caused a backlash from some parents and staff who have been vocal on social media and at recent SBAC meetings.

“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 reads. “She has created an environment of intimidation that makes staff and administrators afraid to speak out on behalf of our students and community.”

Simon has not publicly addressed the petition, but ACPS spokeswoman Jackie Johnson emailed a statement to Mainstreet Daily News

“Any time the leader of an organization proposes significant changes, there is likely to be opposition,” Johnson wrote. “That’s certainly true for a large, public organization like Alachua County Public Schools. Working with the School Board and the community, the Superintendent will continue to move ahead with the improvements she outlined during the public workshop Wednesday afternoon, improvements that will benefit all students.”

McGraw did not respond to a request for comment, but she told WCJB that she had no plans to leave

In the event McGraw does resign or is disqualified, Gov. Ron DeSantis would appoint her replacement. Florida statute 1001.38 reads: “The office of any district school board member shall be vacant when the member removes his or her residence from the district school board member residence area from which he or she was elected. All vacancies on the district school board shall be filled by appointment by the Governor.”

All along in the process of filling the superintendent position, both Hyatt and Paulson emphasized the need to involve the community in the superintendent search and hiring process. 

“It’s not against Dr. Simon,” Paulson said when discussing the salary increase at the March 16 SBAC meeting. “I hope she’ll do a great job, but we don’t know that yet.”

In the same discussion Paulson said the messaging of the decision is important: “The leader leads by example, and we are the leaders. If we do this, it’s a slap in the face to a lot of our employees.”

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