The Alachua County School District continues to butt heads with Gov. Ron DeSantis, prolonging conflict over the mask mandate, two lawsuits and a removed school board member.
Mildred Russell was sworn into the District 2 seat on the Alachua County School Board Aug. 26, replacing former school board member Diyonne McGraw.
McGraw won the August 2020 election with 52.36% of the vote, totaling 30,151 votes. Her supporters felt cheated out of their vote and blindsided by DeSantis’ appointment of Russell.
“I did not vote for her. No one voted for her. I voted for Diyonne McGraw who won the race,” Jaana Gold wrote under an ACPS Facebook post.
“This woman is not a teacher. She homeschooled her son. Her grandchild attends a charter school,” Tonks Hale commented under the post.
DeSantis announced Russell’s appointment Aug. 18 — two months after he filed executive order 21-147 declaring McGraw’s seat vacant and leaving only four board members on the school board.
The school board set a districtwide mask mandate for students beginning Aug. 10. The Florida Department of Education said the four school board members who defied DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates will have their salaries withheld. Therefore, Russell will not have her salary withheld because she was not a part of that decision.
Even if she were able to vote, Russell said she would not have voted to implement the mandate. She said parents should make a decision on masking on an individual basis.
“None of the school board members are doctors,” Russell said. “We're not in the medical profession. It's not the government's job to take that away from parents. And that's what the governor was trying to say: let the parents decide if they opt out. And I would have voted for that.”
Regardless, Russell said her first week has been “busy and exciting” as she gets acclimated to the role.
Russell’s district encompasses the northwestern areas of Gainesville, from Lake Alice to Northwest 53rd Avenue. Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, she has lived in Alachua County for 39 years. Russell graduated with an accounting degree from Western Kentucky University.
Before moving to Florida, Russell and her husband created the organization Miracle Life Ministries in 1990, and they have started more than 350 churches over the years. Russell and her husband have traveled the world together ever since, doing missionary work in countries like Indonesia, China and Russia.
When Russell must make hard decisions as a school board member, she said she will remain committed to her faith. Although she recognizes she’s not there to spread the word of God, it’s reflected in her morals.
“I trust the Lord that he will give me wisdom … I pray about everything, so this would be no different,” she said. “I'm not there to proselytize … I'm just there to be a Christian school board member.”
She also has a history of campaigning for Republican candidates: holding positions with the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee, the Florida Women for McCain Campaign and the McCain for President Campaign.
Russell homeschooled her two children, Rebekah and Jaeson, until high school. She later sent Rebekah to Buchholz High School, where she graduated, and Jaeson to Gainesville High School briefly before they eventually pursued dual enrollment and learned at home.
She fondly remembers teaching her children at home.
“My heart's desire is for every child in the Alachua County Public Schools to have the same kind of positive experience in loving to learn and enjoying learning,” she said. “[Jaeson] was eager to learn, so it was a really pleasant experience. My daughter was a little more uncooperative. But we had a good experience, nevertheless.”
Some residents like Elaine Almond, a 45-year-old Gainesville resident and ACPS parent, are hopeful about Russell’s appointment.
“I would like to have somebody in that leadership position that uses more common sense,” Almond said. “To me, a lot of people are using more political reasons of why they do things, and they don't tap into what God gives us, which is the common sense of being able to look at everything objectively and be able to look at both sides of the situation.”
Almond, who resides in District 2, did not vote for McGraw, saying McGraw’s “extremist views” deterred her from doing so.
Like Russell, Almond does not agree with the school board’s decision to enforce a mask mandate.
“I'm not against masks at all, and I would have chosen to mask my kids,” Almond said. “But I would have liked to have the right. The law states that we have a right, and, unfortunately, the school board over and over again this past year has not been following the law.”
Diyonne McGraw, Russell’s predecessor, ran her campaign around her experiences with racism in ACPS as a student in the 1990s. She said she wanted to work toward closing the district’s achievement gap, improving the reading comprehension and learning for students at a younger age, helping students find personalized pathways to success and looking for ways to make reopening schools safer.
Social media users eventually found McGraw’s home address on her Candidate Oath and debated whether McGraw lived in the district she served. McGraw’s opponent in the November election, Khanh-Lien Banko, sued McGraw and the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton because of the controversy. A Change petition was created three months ago by user “Concerned Alachua County Parents” to remove McGraw from the school board.
The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office later verified McGraw’s address was located in District 4, not District 2. Meanwhile, community organizer Chanae Jackson created another Change petition three months ago to keep McGraw in her position.
“The attorney that represented Khanh-Lien dropped the case,” Jackson said. “And now we will see what happens now that the complaint has been dropped. For me, I'm still not worried. Even if Diyonne does not win in court, which I think she will, we will just run a special election and get her reelected. And this case is such a horrible case, it will motivate people to the polls to ensure that she gets reelected.”
On Aug. 19, McGraw shared a Facebook post revealing she had taken this case to the Alachua County Court System and will be represented by her lawyer Richard Keith Alan II. In the screenshot of an email, McGraw’s spokesperson Avis W. Butler claims the governor had no right to vacate her position and should not have had Russell sworn in.
“The truth shall set you free! I have faith in our Court System!” McGraw wrote.
Contact Jiselle Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.
Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.