Split school board fires Simon

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) fired Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon in a 3-2 vote Tuesday night, capping a tumultuous 15-month tenure marked by a range of local and national controversies.

The termination is effective Wednesday, and the board will begin searching for an interim superintendent immediately. Until then, Deputy Superintendent Donna Jones will become acting superintendent until the board can appoint an interim.

The board will pick the interim superintendent item up again at its next meeting on March 15.

The item concerning Simon sat last on the meeting agenda, and a packed board room also sat with little public comment until the item came up for discussion.

Chair Robert Hyatt introduced the item as a “discussion and possible action on the superintendent’s contract.”

Board member Mildred Russell, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the board in August, spoke first and motioned to terminate Simon without cause. Board member Dr. Gunnar Paulson seconded.

SBAC member Mildred Russell speaks at school board meeting

Hyatt turned to public comment, but first Dr. Leanetta McNealy—the previous board chair who oversaw Simon’s hire—commented on the order.

“I thought we were having a discussion about the contract,” McNealy said. “We haven’t even had a discussion. We haven’t even said a word and they have already determined that the contract needs to be terminated.”

“We have had many discussions over the last three meetings about the superintendent’s contract,” Hyatt replied.

He said some of those meetings dealt with the question in depth and the motion came in response to those prior discussions.

At the SBAC’s Feb. 15 meeting, the board focused on member evaluations of Simon in her annual review. Simon’s review by the board averaged 5.5 out of 9. With each board member averaging the following rating on Simon’s performance.

  • McNealy: 8.2
  • Certain: 7.0
  • Russell: 5.2
  • Hyatt: 3.6
  • Paulson: 2.5

At that meeting, Simon asked for clarification on feedback and ways to move forward, sparking a 45-minute discussion.

Hyatt said he would have liked to have the request in advance so he could have come ready to discuss it. He said he didn’t think a board meeting was the proper place to review his evaluation.

At the end of that time, Paulson called the discussion inappropriate.

“I stand on my evaluation,” Paulson said. “It’s public, and I don’t think we should be sitting here doing this.”

On Tuesday night, public comment lasted roughly three hours as part of the six-hour meeting that ended around midnight.

Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker spoke to the board and urged members to reconsider.

“I am seriously disappointed and saddened to know that Dr. Simon would be told that she’s not good enough, the work that she’s done is not good enough, that her job would be up for termination and she has not been given the opportunity for course correction,” Duncan-Walker said.

Afterward, Hyatt said each board member and Simon would get the chance to speak as long or short as they wanted.

Simon went first and aired a list of concerns in the district and areas the district has made strides. She expressed concerns about school zoning, Camp Crystal, student achievement gaps and administrators who abuse connections within the district.

“At some point, we have to decide: Do we make the decisions that serve the adults or serve the children?” Simon said. “I decided I needed to make decisions that serve the children.”

McNealy spoke after Simon and hit on problems within the school board.

“I have acknowledged that we are dysfunctional,” McNealy said. “And I’m a part of that dysfunction. I cause dysfunction and all of my other colleagues cause dysfunction.”

McNealy remembered back to 2012 when she first joined the board as the “Black token.” She said her thoughts and initiatives were heard without the board taking action.

When Certain joined in 2018, McNealy said she thought there might be hope, but when former SBAC member Diyonne McGraw won election, McNealy said something shifted on the board.

McNealy said uneasy feelings began creeping up, and former Superintendent Karen Clarke resigned, forcing a hiring search. She said the board needs to return to its former, closer relationship with each other.

“Until we come together, folks, and fix us to be better, then we can move forward,” McNealy said to the other board members.

She also ran through Simon’s qualifications, a topic of contention throughout her tenure, to counter emails she still receives on the matter.

Paulson said people can look at his evaluation and make their decisions from there.

“Whatever happens tonight, I can guarantee you I’ll do my best to work with the board and the other board members,” Paulson said. “We’ll do the best we can for our children and Alachua County.”

Hyatt said the school system is in disarray and that he took the issues seriously. He added that his evaluation was also in the public and encouraged people to read it, saying he would feel comfortable with his vote.

“As a board, we have to be informed of things,” Hyatt said. “The superintendent does not make unilateral decisions and then the board finds out some time later.”

He also agreed with McNealy that the board needed to solve its own internal issues.

The decision to dismiss Simon came almost 15 months after she became interim superintendent and less than a year after the SBAC voted to make her permanent in another 3-2 vote. Hyatt and Paulson objected to the lack of community input, the length of Simon’s contract (through June 2023), and a salary increase from $160,000 to $175,000.

In the months that followed, Simon faced criticism over, among other things, a major reorganization plan, changes to a school improvement projects list, and whether she had the proper certification for the job.

Simon also went toe-to-toe with vocal parents and the state in a public spat over the district’s mask mandate. She consistently defended the SBAC’s decision to implement the mandate in court filings, a Washington Post column and national television appearances.

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