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Racism, zoning and reopening: Alachua County School Board candidates go head-to-head before election

Alachua County School Board candidates

From racism to reopening, school board candidates shared their ideas on several hot topics before the Aug. 18 election

Alachua County School Board candidates discussed systemic racism, school zoning and stability, and reopening plans in an online forum Monday evening.

The forum, moderated by Dayspring Baptist Church and United Church of Gainesville, streamed on the Alachua County NAACP’s Facebook page. The school board election will take place on Aug. 18. County residents will vote for District 2 and District 4 seats.

Khanh-Lien Banko, the daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant and a Vietnam veteran, was named Volunteer of the Year by the Florida Department of Education from 2018-2019. She is running for a seat in District 2.

Diyonne McGraw is a former probation officer with more than 25 years of experience in Alachua County Court Services. She also worked as a former intensive case manager with Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. She is running for a seat in District 2.

Sande MacLauren Calkins recently retired after 38 years as the director at the Alachua County Education Association. Calkins was also a Gainesville City Commissioner from 1996 to 1999. She is running for a seat in District 4.

Leanetta McNealy has 38 years of experience as an elementary teacher and principal. She was elected to the school board in 2012. She is running for reelection of her District 4 seat.

Systemic Racism

Banko said she defines equity in schools as providing all students with the tools they need to learn. She also mentioned J.J. Finley Elementary School, named after a confederate general, as an example of systemic racism in Alachua County Public Schools.

Finley was someone who wouldn’t have allowed many students today to receive an education, Banko added.

Calkins said she believes systemic racism is present in some East Gainesville schools where students are constantly struggling to catch up.

“Equity is making sure that every child in every school has the same materials, resources, quality of instructors, no matter where you go to school or who you are,” she said.

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McGraw said 70 percent of African American children and 84 percent of students with disabilities don’t perform well in reading and math, compared to 26 percent of white children.

To McGraw, an example of racism is the segregation of schools in East and West Gainesville and the lack of action to end the achievement gap.

McNealy agreed, adding that systemic racism appears in the student performance.

She believes everyone on the school board needs to do everything in their power to close the achievement gap.

School Zoning

The school district should revise its zoning policy and include every neighborhood in the conversation, Banko said.

To Banko, students should learn in schools with diversity, Banko said.

Calkins agreed, adding that it’s important to talk about racism as well as the value of people with differences coming together, Calkins said.

Although redlining is illegal, it still takes place through zoning and the presence of programs in some schools and not in others, McGraw said. The school board has to make sure all schools have the resources they need for students to be successful, McGraw said.

Redlining is a process where investors would draw red lines, based on demographics, around neighborhoods they refused to invest in.

This is racial segregation, and its effects are still present in the school system, McNealy said. While teaching at various Gainesville schools, McNealy said she noticed a difference between Prairie View and Duval Elementary in East Gainesville and Hidden Oak and Irby Elementary Schools in West Gainesville.

School Stability

Although new teachers coming into East Gainesville schools aren’t as experienced, Banko said they’re coming in with new ideas and need resources.

“They just need our support and wider community support,” she said, “They need to feel like a part of the Alachua County Public School education family.”

Calkins said she met with some teachers from Lake Forest Elementary last week. She said teachers told her their students say “I’m going to a bad school.”

Turnaround experience is missing in the school district, McGraw said. The board lacks leadership that has experience with turnaround and is able to look at data and help schools transition between teachers and principals.

Including interim principals, Lake Forest Elementary School has had five principals within the last year, McNealy said.

“Can you imagine the instability of those children, staff, parents and community?” McNealy said. “I’m appalled at what’s going on over there.”

Although schools have new teachers coming in, they aren’t as seasoned as teachers at schools in West Gainesville, she said. The school board needs to find ways to incentivize teachers to come to East Gainesville schools.

Reopening Plans

The school board needs to work in conjunction with the county health department and the state to understand whether or not schools can safely reopen, Banko said.

“We need to have a better understanding of the workforce, and make sure they feel safe and comfortable doing their jobs,” Banko said.

If the number of positive cases keeps increasing, school should be online for the first nine weeks, Calkins said.

“Well, that question has been keeping me up at night,” Calkins said, “Let’s just hope we don’t do anything until we know that our children, our teachers and our staff are going back to a safe place.”

When COVID-19 concerns began in March, leadership should’ve immediately organized a task force and used health professionals to create predictions for the virus, McGraw said.

If it’s not safe to return to school, the school board will have to look at other options, McGraw said, adding that not all students have access to a laptop.

McNealy said she agrees with McGraw. While she said she understands families will struggle without the option of sending their children to school, she believes it isn’t safe yet.

“I’m not for opening the school,” McNealy said, “We cannot send them back.”

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