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School board elects Hyatt as Chair in contentious meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the November 16 Alachua County School Board meeting, the first order of business was to elect a new Chair for the upcoming year. Member Leanetta McNealy, the outgoing Chair, immediately nominated Member Tina Certain, the outgoing Vice-Chair. She added, “Mr. [Robert] Hyatt has been doing so much with the protocol, with mitigation, and many other things with COVID; I’d like to recommend that he be Vice-Chair.” Certain seconded the motion. Before the motion was voted on, Member Mildred Russell nominated Hyatt as Chair. Member Gunnar Paulson seconded the motion. 

Since the board was without a Chair until after the vote, Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon was chairing the meeting. She decided to take public comment before voting on the motions, but Board Attorney David Delaney told her they didn’t need to take public comment because the vote was ministerial. Simon asked whether she should have the board vote on whether to take public comment, and Delaney said that McNealy was still technically Chair until a new Chair is installed. 

McNealy stepped in, saying, “I’d like to say, because Mrs. Russell is new to the board, we’ve always had our Vice-Chair, who has been Vice-Chair all year long, moved—it’s just almost known that that would be the person who would be Chairman, and then we would look at Vice-Chair. Since I’m still Chairman, I’d like to hear from the public.”

Hyatt said public comment wasn’t on the agenda, but McNealy said, “[the attorney] said that I could do that, so yes, I’d like to have that happen.” Hyatt looked at the attorney and gestured toward him while Simon invited the public to comment. 

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County Commissioner Anna Prizzia, who said she was speaking as a member of the public, was first to speak, saying that the county commission has a formal process of having the Vice-Chair become the Chair in the following year, “and it’s a long-standing tradition of the public school, as well,” so she supported Certain as the Chair. Carolyn Webber also supported “following protocol” and making Certain the Chair.

McNealy then spoke again on the tradition of promoting the Vice-Chair to Chair: “I wanted [Mrs. Russell] to know that this is the format that we have been going through, as board members, and I would hope that we would not change that tonight, and I thank the citizens for that support.”

Delaney advised Simon to treat the two motions as two nominations, so she started with Certain’s nomination. The vote for Certain failed 2-3, with Certain and McNealy voting in favor of Certain. The vote for Hyatt passed 3-2, with McNealy and Certain in dissent, making Hyatt the new Chair.

Simon then opened the floor for nominations for Vice-Chair. Paulson nominated Russell, and Hyatt seconded the nomination. McNealy said, “Since she’s already Vice-Chair, I’m going to try this again and say that Mrs. Certain needs to retain her position as Vice-Chair.” Certain seconded the nomination. 

Simon asked McNealy if she wanted to hear public comment, and McNealy said, “Absolutely.” Diyonne McGraw said it was “very disheartening to come here this evening and see those who say they are very committed for the success of every child because there’s a difference between politics and being a public servant. I am myself as a public servant. What I do every day is for the children. I show that through campaigning and other things… tonight God said to me, ‘You get up and speak.’… All of the shootings, the violence that has continued here in Alachua County, parents who need help… and we make a decision to play with education.” Another citizen said Russell should gain more experience before becoming Vice-Chair, and Tina Days called in to say she was “appalled at what has happened tonight,” also referring to Russell’s short term on the board so far. 

Carolyn Webber said she was “in actual shock—like, this is a full-on coup. Ms. Russell was appointed by Governor DeSantis in a county that is, what, 60% Democrats? And you’re gonna make her Vice-Chair of the school board? You think that’s what the citizens want in this county? You’ve lost your minds… We’re going to have this on every website, Indivisible, every single website will have this. This is a coup, it’s not acceptable, and everyone’s going to hear about this. Everyone. This is not okay. Honest to God, I can’t even believe it, this is ridiculous.”

During Julie Crosby’s call in support of Certain, she said, “Anybody with eyes knows what’s happening here. Mr. Hyatt, I hope that you will refrain from ever again giving us a story about your days at Duval Elementary as an example of your lack of racism. I don’t think I could stomach that.” Five other callers spoke in support of Certain, and one spoke in support of Russell.

Public hearing on redistricting

By then, it was 6:30, at which point the agenda called for a time-certain item, a public hearing on redistricting, so they paused the discussion on selecting a Vice-Chair.

One citizen spoke in favor of Option 2, which the board unanimously adopted on October 23 on first reading. Paulson said he would like to see a workshop on the redistricting options because he didn’t feel like they’d had much chance to really examine the specific borders of the proposed districts, but no motions were made.

Back to the Vice-Chair discussion

After the public hearing, another citizen spoke in favor of Certain as Vice-Chair. 

The vote for Russell as Vice-Chair failed, 2-3, with Russell and Paulson voting in favor of Russell. The vote for Certain passed 3-2, with Russell and Paulson in dissent. Certain is the Vice-Chair for the upcoming year.

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