After a two-month search, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Mildred Russell to fill the Alachua County School Board vacancy on Wednesday.
Russell, a 36-year resident of school board District 2, will serve in the role until next year’s special election to finish the four-year term of Diyonne McGraw, who was elected in 2020 but lived just outside the district boundary. Russell is an ordained minister who has been active in Republican politics for three decades.
On Wednesday, hours after her appointment, Russell spoke with Mainstreet Daily News about her background and plans for her new role. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
J.C. DERRICK: How long have you lived in Gainesville?
MILDRED RUSSELL: Thirty-nine years. We moved here before our son was born. We decided to settle here. We’ve lived in the same house for 36 years.
JD: Where did you grow up?
MR: Paducah, Kentucky. It was a wonderful place to grow up.
JD: How many children do you have?
MR: Two. Our daughter died three years ago. Our son lives here in Gainesville.
MR: One, my son’s 13-year-old daughter. She goes to Alachua Learning Center in Alachua—and she’s delightful.
JD: How have you gotten to know the district over the years?
MR: Our daughter went to Buchholz High School. At the time we were zoned for Gainesville High, and our son had taken a class there. Our daughter wanted to go to Academy of Entrepreneurship at Buchholz. I got to know the schools at that time. I need to reacquaint myself with them. I'm looking forward to that.
JD: You also homeschooled some years?
MR: Yes, our son took one class at Gainesville High when he was in high school [but was otherwise home educated]. Then he dual enrolled at Santa Fe College. Our daughter wanted the full high school experience, so she was homeschooled through the ninth grade and graduated from Buchholz.
JD: You mentioned reacquainting yourself with the district. How do you hope to do that?
MR: I would like to meet with some teachers and parents. This is my first day, so I have a lot to learn. I'm not really sure how all this will play out, but as a school board member, it's important to know what the teachers think and what the parents think.
JD: When did you find out about your appointment?
MR: I got a call this morning. Very exciting. Once I decided to apply, I became really excited about it, because education is important to me. The thought that I could contribute something positive to our community I found very exciting. I am really looking forward to this. I consider it a real honor that the governor would have confidence in me to fill this seat.
JD: Will you run for reelection next year?
MR: Between now and then I will have an opportunity to decide if I want to run for the seat. That isn't really a given at this point, but certainly a possibility.
JD: The school board has been through multiple controversies this year and experience some tensions. What approach will you bring to the board?
MR: I don't know all the board members. I'm looking forward to getting to know them. My hope is that we will all have open and honest conversation that is not judgmental or in any way presumptive. I have my own mind and opinions, as I'm sure each of the board members do. At last night’s board meeting I know Gunnar Paulson said we really need to listen to each other, and I agree with that. I have really high expectations that as a school board we'll be able to do that. Whether we agree or disagree, we can arrive at the decisions in a very polite manner. I'm sure the board members all feel the same.
JD: Which of the board members do you know?
MR: I know Mrs. McNealy from my volunteer work at Duval. I've met Gunnar Paulson, but it was a long time ago, so he probably wouldn't remember me
JD: How will you approach the mask mandate issue?
MR: At this point I don't know because I've not been part of the conversation. Once I've been part of the conversation going forward, I'll hear from all sides and form my own conclusions.
JD: What goals do you have for your time as a school board member?
MR: I hope to accomplish providing the tools and the mechanism for Alachua County children to have the best educational experience they can have. I'm not saying they're not getting that now, but there is always room for improvement. I'm a foundations person. I love our country. I want all of our children to love our country, because it's the best country in the world, even with all of its faults and flaws. I would love for children to enjoy school as much as I did growing up. I would like children to be able to graduate and say, "I loved high school."
JD: As a minister, how will your faith inform your work on the school board?
MR: My faith does influence everything that I think and do. I'm not a preachy person, but I am very strongly influenced by my faith and the Word of God and my belief and trust in the Lord. I'm sure there will be times when that will be evident. I think our faith should influence everything we do. I pray about everything.