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School board divided on Strategic Plan proposal

Lauren Ryan describes the Cognia proposal

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Bottom line: School board members disagreed on whether to spend $127,800 for a new Strategic Plan for the school district. Two members didn’t express an opinion either way, Members Tina Certain and Leanetta McNealy favored the proposal, and Member Gunnar Paulson did not favor the proposal. The proposal emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion, with a focus on community engagement.


At their May 11 Workshop, the Alachua County School Board reviewed the highest-ranked response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Strategic Plan for the district. Lauren Ryan from Purchasing said Cognia’s response, ranked highest by the proposal evaluation committee, “proposed a methodical approach to rezoning that resulted in balanced enrollments and equitable opportunities” and a four-part plan for “diversity, equity, inclusion in all instructional components and student activities.” Ryan said Cognia could also do focus groups that might include “teachers, district staff, students, parents, community members, people from the City of Gainesville, Board of Commissioners, things of that nature.”

Focus on diversity, equity, inclusion

As part of the contract, Cognia would also do an Equity Review for a representative sample of schools in the district. Ryan said their proposal “focused a lot on advancing equity and assessment, centering on principles of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in the design and use of education assessments.” The cost of the RFP is $127,800, which includes a $30,000 “discount” for the “Equity Review Pilot” and a membership for each elementary and middle school. The district’s seven high schools already have accreditation contracts with Cognia. 

Superintendent Shane Andrew said the cost could increase if the district wanted more focus groups, “so what we want this to do is be a comprehensive process where we engage with all the stakeholders, including UF and Santa Fe College, and this is not just Alachua County Public Schools’ vision; it’s the community’s vision, and then that collaboration between all of us to help meet the needs of everyone in Alachua County.”

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Previous Strategic Plan was last updated in 2020

The previous Strategic Plan was adopted in 2012; as can be seen in this article, the 2014-15 school year was the last year that Alachua County’s third-grade reading scores outperformed the state average. Board Member Gunnar Paulson said the district tracked the goals of the Strategic Plan “until we changed superintendents.” He handed out a document in which former Superintendent Karen Clarke had laid out her goals and objectives for the 2020-21 school year, with the implication that former Superintendent Carlee Simon had not given the board a similar document during her tenure as Superintendent. Paulson said he was surprised when he learned at the January 18 board meeting that Simon proposed using $250,000 of ESSER funds for a new Strategic Plan. Paulson said, “I’m sure [Cognia is] a reputable company, but I think we had an excellent product.”

Paulson said he would rather see the ESSER funds used to correct facility problems in Hawthorne, and “I just think we are in a position, with a 5.5% unrestricted fund balance and that we need to use every dollar we can… and this is an extra… I just think this isn’t the time.”

Board Chair Robert Hyatt said he wasn’t speaking “to the final say on Cognia or not, but I just wanted to agree that yes, we have had a plan, and yes, it was an active plan that gave the board information on a regular basis.”

“If we were a manufacturing company, and one model that you made, 70% of them were rejects, or not performing as designed or at an optimal level, that particular division would be closed down. So I’m going to translate that to student achievement. When we look at… our students by race and demographics… our students of color have not performed well for at least five years.” – Board Member Tina Certain

Board Member Tina Certain said the previous plan was good but “needs to be revised and expanded upon… If we were a manufacturing company, and one model that you made, 70% of them were rejects, or not performing as designed or at an optimal level, that particular division would be closed down. So I’m going to translate that to student achievement. When we look at… our students by race and demographics… our students of color have not performed well for at least five years.”

Certain said it “broke my heart… that we as a board [in 2019] did not adopt as a priority early literacy, meaning that we would really focus our resources on kindergarten, first, and second grade as a priority, to make sure our early learners got off to a really good start… I thought it was very short-sighted to wait until third grade to try to do all of these interventions… That was this plan right here… Are we really getting the outcomes that we desire or that we need to be getting?… I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board and revise it… We’re going to have to… compete… to be better and provide a better educational experience for our students so we don’t have a higher number of students deciding to take the Empowerment Scholarship or to homeschool because that does take off a whole level of funding; we just saw those numbers increasing exponentially, and that impacts us.”

Certain said she’d had “zero confidence in the real estate services contract,” but she believed the Strategic Plan RFP process was “done with integrity according to state rules.” 

“We know what we need in this district—we should, we live here.”

Paulson said the existing Strategic Plan is meant to be a “living document… and that’s why we have meetings three to four times a year, every year… If there’s not things that are working, Ms. Certain can give us some input… This is a good Strategic Plan… if it’s not working, point it out, and we can change it… Every dollar we have is important right now… We know what we need in this district—we should, we live here.”

“We’re not going to pinpoint whose problem was that or who didn’t do what, we’re not going to call out names today.” – Board Member Leanetta McNealy

Board Member Leanetta McNealy said the data in the last update on the strategic plan was obviously not current, “so when you have discrepancies like that, you know that you need to change the living document… We’re not up to date… and we’re not going to pinpoint whose problem was that or who didn’t do what, we’re not going to call out names today.”

School board candidates, former Superintendent speak during public comment

During public comment, School Board Candidate Daniel Fisher asked what had changed “in a mere 19 months now, that you have to scrap the entire process and completely change and redo it? The community should know that, because you’re talking about spending a lot of money for a completely new process.” Fisher also questioned the price of the proposal for the Strategic Plan and said there are “so many needs” in the district “that are not currently being met.”

School Board Candidate Sarah Rockwell focused on the rezoning piece of the Strategic Plan: “People have, like, feelings about their schools, they’re attached to their schools, they love their schools, it’s a community, and so doing rezoning in a way that makes everyone feel included and feel like they trust the process is exceptionally important, and I don’t think we have a lot of trust and faith right now from our community.” She proposed asking Cognia for just the rezoning piece because “I think it’s really, really, critically important that we bring someone outside to run the focus groups… we’re not having great input on our surveys.”

“Septuagenarians on this board who haven’t had children in the education system for decades need to hear from people because your experiences are three decades old.” – Former Superintendent Carlee Simon

Former Superintendent Carlee Simon said it’s been 10 years since the community engagement in 2012 for the current Strategic Plan, “so people are asking what has changed? Well, a decade. On top of that, the district has received essentially a hundred million dollars to focus on our response to a pandemic that occurs, what, every hundred years? That is what has happened… The Strategic Plan is not to take your existing road map and make tweaks, which I will also say right now, you have the largest achievement gap in the state of Florida, so you might want to reflect on it… I think you need to have this experience to hear what people want… You’re getting a whole new generation of people that you haven’t talked to, so provide this opportunity, listen to these people, and septuagenarians on this board who haven’t had children in the education system for decades need to hear from people because your experiences are three decades old.”

When the discussion went back to the board, Paulson said the reason the plan hadn’t been updated for two years is that “every time I asked, they wouldn’t do it.”

Hyatt commented that Simon’s comment was “maybe the first time in my short span as a septuagenarian that that’s been used as a pejorative against me, so, uh, thank you very much.”

Next steps

Next steps will include discussions between the Superintendent and the elementary and middle school principals to see if they’re interested in individual school memberships, and the proposal will come back to the board at a future meeting. Board members also expressed interest in seeing examples of plans that Cognia created for other clients, and Andrew suggested that they reach out to their colleagues in Santa Rosa County, which is about a year into the process.

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