SBAC disagreement emerges over Simon contract

Two School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) members disagree with their own attorney’s opinion that Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon is qualified to hold her position.

The issue of Simon’s contract first came up at the school board’s Sept. 21 meeting, when some local citizens said she did not have the proper qualifications for the job. The next day, staff attorney David Delaney released a legal opinion stating that Simon was qualified, because her Florida Department of Education (FDOE) certification lapsed in 2013, years before she became superintendent. 

“Put simply, the contract says ‘maintain and keep’ not ‘obtain’, as she does not currently have a certification,” Delaney wrote in response to board member Mildred Russell’s request for clarification about Simon’s contract.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Dr. Gunnar Paulson made it clear he disagrees with Delaney. He said he reads Simon’s employment contract as meaning she must have a current certification to hold the position.

“I totally disagree with his interpretation of the superintendent’s contract,” Paulson said. “I read it, I looked back, I talked to other lawyers, and I just can’t understand how he came to that conclusion.”

The contract section on certification (10.3) reads as follows:

“The Superintendent shall at times throughout the term of this Contract maintain and keep current a valid certification in administration and supervision or equivalent as issued by the Florida Department of Education. The Superintendent shall notify the Board immediately of any change in the status of such certification. Suspension, revocation or lapse of such certification shall be deemed a breach of this Contract by the Superintendent and shall release the Board from all obligations under this contract.”

Paulson read the section aloud at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Language counts, words have meanings,” he said, emphasizing, “The Superintendent shall at times throughout the term of this Contract maintain and keep current a valid certification in administration and supervision or equivalent as issued by the Florida Department of Education.”

Paulson noted that Simon and SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy signed the contract and said that he thinks the way the superintendent was chosen caused the process to be hurried and mistakes were made as a result.

“Either they didn’t see it, or they ignored it,” he said about the certification clause.

“That language to me is crystal clear,” Paulson continued. “And I want the people to know how I feel. I cannot believe we let this slip by.”

Board member Mildred Russell—who was appointed in August—then spoke up and said she agreed with Paulson.

“When I read the contract, I thought the same thing Dr. Paulson did,” she said. “That’s what the language expresses. I’m just saying that’s the way it looks to me.”

Dr. Carlee Simon, Alachua County Public Schools superintendent

McNealy said she signed the contract and knows how it should be interpreted. She encouraged Russell to meet with Delaney to further understand the document and the attorney’s interpretation.

“I know what he said,” Russell responded. “I’m just saying that when I read the contract I agree with Dr. Paulson that’s what it says.”

Russell then pointed to the board’s split decision in March to make Simon permanent. 

“It’s also my understanding that not everyone agreed,” Russell said about the 3-2 vote in which Paulson and Rob Hyatt dissented.

McNealy acknowledged the vote was 3 to 2 and moved on to citizen comments, which included both compliments and scathing remarks about Simon.

SBAC Chair Dr. Leanetta McNealy

The SBAC named Simon interim superintendent in December 2020 in a 3-to-2 vote, then promoted her to full-time status, raised her salary—from $160,000 to $175,000—and extended her contract through 2023.

At the March 16 SBAC meeting, Paulson and 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 McNealy, Tina Certain and then-board member Diyonne McGraw brushed aside the concerns and approved the motion on a 3-2 vote.

Simon then made staffing changes throughout the district that received pushback from parents and staff and prompted a “Vote of No Confidence” petition against Simon. It has received 1,577 signatures to date.

“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 says. 

The SBAC’s stand on COVID-19 mitigation then thrust Simon into the national spotlight and pushed the petition to the background. She continues to be interviewed by local, state and national news outlets about defying state mask rules.

On Thursday, Simon and 10 other Florida school district superintendents will speak at the State Board of Education meeting for “consideration of probable cause for noncompliance” with the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) emergency rule new Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo issued Sept. 22, according to the agenda.

The FDOE website says superintendents must have the following qualifications to hold the position: A master’s or higher degree awarded by an acceptable institution and successful completion of the Florida Educational Leadership Core Curriculum.

Simon released a statement addressing the matter two weeks ago, along with her CV showing she holds a Ph.D in educational administration and policy with a focus on public school finance. She is pursuing a second Ph.D in design, construction and urban planning.

Simon stated at the Sept. 21 SBAC meeting that many Florida school superintendents do not and have never held certifications.

“There is no certification requirement to be a superintendent in the state of Florida,” Simon said. “There are many superintendents who have never been educators. So I am fully qualified to serve as superintendent.”

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