A school board seat is vacant: what now?

by David Kaplan, Julie Crosby, and Sarah Rockwell

In August 2020,  Alachua County residents cast their ballots for two seats on the School Board of Alachua County, among other positions. When the votes were counted, Dr. Leanetta McNealy was re-elected to represent District 4, becoming Chairwoman of the Board, and Diyonne McGraw was elected to represent District 2. 

The election was a historic event for Alachua County, as Dr. McNealy and Ms. McGraw joined board member Tina Certain to create, for the first time, a Black majority on the five-person board with a strong public commitment to educational excellence and equity. The same election saw several other progressive, Black, and female candidates win seats in this County-wide election. 

As has been widely reported, while Ms. McGraw’s registration for candidacy in District 2 was made using her home address and accepted by the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, review of precinct and district maps seven months after she was sworn into office, showed her residence to be a few hundred feet outside of District 2, calling her election into question. Multiple legal actions ensued, both in support of and against Ms. McGraw maintaining her seat, and on June 17, Governor DeSantis declared the seat “vacant,” allowing him to fill the seat with an appointee of this choice. Several lawsuits are currently ongoing over the Governor’s executive order (EO) and are not the focus of this article. Instead, we ask a simple question: what should happen next?

Should McGraw fail in her bid to regain the seat, Governor DeSantis can honor the spirit and  intent of the 31,000+ Alachua County voters who participated in last August’s election by keeping a few key considerations in mind when selecting an appointee: 

1) ensure that the appointee resides in District 2 and represents the motivations and intent of local voters; 

2) select an appointee who supports continuation of the progress made during Ms. McGraw’s tenure, with special consideration of the need to intelligently, equitably, and transparently use $90 million in Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which must be spent by 2024. 

It is no doubt a challenge for the top state-level executive to carefully and knowledgeably select a local appointee who meets these criteria, which may explain the Governor’s delay in filling Ms. McGraw’s seat. As such, a review of the Governor’s options and possible outcomes may be helpful.

Currently, the seat is vacant, and the Governor could choose to leave the seat vacant for an undetermined period of time. This leaves an even-numbered board of four members, which makes all new business vulnerable to dead-locked 2-2 votes. Indeed, the four-member board has met twice so far, with two major votes on important staffing needs. The first vote failed after a 2-2 deadlock, and the second vote took over 3 hours of contentious debate to yield a 3-1 outcome that approved only half of the Superintendent’s list of new and revised job descriptions, hamstringing the school District with less than five weeks until the start of the new school year: not an auspicious beginning. 

Restoring a five-member board is preferable if the County wishes to continue progress toward school improvements, so the “keep the set vacant” option is clearly a detriment to our children, teachers, and community.  

As a second option, the Governor could choose to appoint a party-line choice or loyal local supporter who will conform to his platform. School board seats are intended to be non-partisan, but a direct Governor appointee, particularly of a close supporter or party representative, has the potential to be very potently political. Selecting a political ally or supporter, particularly one whose educational experience and goals were out of line with Ms. McGraw’s, would be bad for the voters who elected McGraw, and for the idea of home rule more broadly. This option would be a bad precedent for Alachua County, the state of Florida, and the Governor himself.

Regarding a third path that honors the will of the voters, the Governor has a few options. First, the Governor could appoint someone in line with Ms. McGraw’s stated philosophy and voting record. This choice would respect the voters’ wishes and maintain the flow of progress in Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS). 

Another option would be to allow Ms. McGraw, who owns other properties in District 2, the opportunity to move into the District and immediately re-appoint her to the seat. This good-faith gesture would maintain the spirit of home rule, respect the choice made by voters last August, and most importantly, provide the best potential for academic achievement and success for the students in the ACPS.

Regardless of which option the Governor selects, it is imperative that he support and respect Alachua County Supervisor of Elections officials in their efforts to clarify precincts and districts. County voters, candidates, Ms. McGraw, and the students of Alachua County deserve no less. 

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