BY AMBER THIBODAUX
Superintendent Carlee Simon’s first evaluations since being hired in December 2020 were published on the agenda for Tuesday’s school board meeting so the board could decide whether to accept them. Simon was evaluated and graded in several areas, including her communication skills with both the public and other board members, her COVID-19 response, decision-making, and employee morale. Board members had mixed reviews on Simon’s effectiveness in her first year. Simon also provided a self-evaluation, which detailed her goals for the district and highlighted areas where she believed she excelled, in sections she titled “Personal Reflection.”
The evaluations consisted of 43 statements and a rating scale of 9-1, with “9” being “highly effective” and “1” being “needs improvement.” There was an option of selecting “not observed” if the board member couldn’t apply a rating to the statement. Opportunity for comment was available under each rating, where some board members included their own observations and recommendations on various issues.
Board members Tina Certain and Leanetta McNealy gave Simon the highest marks, both assigning Simon an overall “highly effective” score. Certain pointed out the increase in “student misbehavior and mental health incidences that are attributed to isolation and disruptions associated with pandemic” but assured that Dr. Simon is addressing this by overseeing the development of a district-wide PBIS/behavior system, in collaboration with the University of Florida. Certain also discussed Simon’s accessibility and availability to the public, stating, “There is a need for increased community engagement; as an organization we need to reach out more and receive feedback. I think this can be done by forming various citizens committees. These efforts have been slowed due to COVID.” Certain said she was pleased with how Simon has led her team to analyze district operations to maximize the use of limited resources. She added that Simon has “identified areas in which spending is excessive or moneys are being used poorly, taken corrective action to stop the waste and improves processes to be efficient and more effective.”
McNealy graded Simon as “outstanding” in nearly every area, with the exception of four statements where she chose the “not observed” mark.
Gunnar Paulson administered the lowest grades across the board for Simon, giving her an “unsatisfactory” mark overall. His essay-style approach differed from the other board members, and he suggested ways Simon could improve, using numerous real-life examples. He began by expressing concern with Simon’s lack of administrative experience in public schools. “Unfortunately, my many conversations with community stakeholders reflects my belief that our public-school culture is full of anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion,” Paulson wrote. He attributes this anxiety and confusion to “a result of Dr. Simon’s absence of positive strategies in relationship building, transparency in decision making and empathetic communication with those of differing viewpoints.”
Paulson highlighted the non-renewal of nine district employees last year as just one example of negative relationship skills, including the “process of sending an HR employee to the administrator’s place of work to deliver a non-renewal contract letter without explanation.” He also mentioned his distaste for Simon publicly identifying a local physician whom she questioned for signing medical exemptions on masks: “I believe by publicly identifying this individual, Dr. Simon sent the message to parents and community members that she views ‘media callouts’ as an effective strategy to silence differing viewpoints.” Paulson wrote that Simon’s “absence of purposeful, positive relationship building” has been reflected in his interactions with her and describes his first year under her leadership as “for the most part unproductive and frustrating.”
Paulson concluded by discussing what he described as a disregard for transparent decision-making. He said he was informed by an article in The Gainesville Sun that the district would be redrawing district lines, rather than from Simon herself. He then recalled, “one of the most surprising discussions, unknown to this board member, was the Superintendent’s visit to the Hawthorne community where she discussed with the community plans to build a new K-12 school. Not informing board members of community concerns about their current schools and a proposal for a brand-new school was startling.” He pointed out that public announcements like this can foster confusion, with other rural areas in Alachua County asking the question, “What about our area?”
Chair Robert Hyatt gave Simon an overall grade of “needs improvement,” adding that employee morale is at an “all-time low.” Hyatt wrote, “It has been over fifty years since Alachua County has been this divided over schools. Without doubt a large degree of this is due to the conflict of COVID response.” He admits that Simon followed the board’s directive on COVID and that “this would have been a tough time for any superintendent.”
Mildred Russell gave Simon a grade of “developing” but said she’s “concerned about comments from parents, teachers, and the public about interaction with her.” Russell said she worries that “politics gets in the way of fair treatment at times.” Russell praised Simon, however, for “taking steps to improve many situations in our district,” and for “working well with the board at meetings and workshops,” apart from Paulson. “I understand that [Simon] and Dr. Paulson do not have much of a relationship at the moment. That has a negative effect on our work as a team. I believe that that relationship needs to be repaired,” Russell wrote.
Each evaluation can be read in its entirety here.