Donning a white silk pantsuit and neon green nails, District 2 School Board candidate Diyonne McGraw surrounded herself with loved ones to celebrate her election night win as precinct results slowly rolled in.
McGraw won the Alachua County District 2 School Board race with 56.92% of the vote, about 14 percentage points more than school board member Mildred Russell. Russell was appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after he removed McGraw in June 2021.
McGraw’s 2020 win ushered in a Black female majority for the first time in the school board’s history. Now, she will return to her seat as the District 2 School Board member despite her previous removal, which she said was politically motivated.
“I think a great message to the children here in Alachua County,” McGraw said. “You never give up. They see me as a beacon of hope, and that’s what I want to be to the children.”
At Russell’s watch party, she said “it’s going to be a sad thing” if she didn’t win.
Russell said “the reporting of the precincts is a little suspect” because she heard precincts in Alachua County ran out of Republican ballots. However, she said she was successful because she “created a new conversation” about new ideas and issues.
McGraw’s campaign centered on workforce development, improved reading comprehension in public schools and transparency among elected officials.
During the campaign, Russell led the race for campaign contributions with about $40,700; McGraw followed behind with about $24,600.
As a registered Democrat, McGraw accrued various endorsements from groups including Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida, UF College Democrats, Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus and Stonewall Democrats of Alachua County.
The 53-year-old business owner won the District 2 School Board seat in 2020 by a tight margin of 3,000 votes against her opponent, Khanh Lien Banko.
“It wasn’t easy for a lot of people to accept,” McGraw said. “Even people who were serving with me did not like that I had won.”
McGraw’s victory was short-lived as Banko and other community members began questioning whether she resided in the appropriate district.
Despite being verified twice by the Supervisor of Elections Office and owning property in District 2, her registered home was in District 4 — by just 384 feet, according to district maps. Following redistricting from the 2020 census, McGraw’s registered residence is now legally within District 2, allowing her to run against Russell.
Just seven months after her election, local attorney Jeff Childers filed an emergency ex parte injunctive relief — a court’s removal of an individual or party from a particular action or role — in August 2021.
McGraw fought this removal; however, state representatives told her if she didn’t step down, she may be tried for perjury.
“They waited seven and a half months,” McGraw said. “This is not about where I lived, this was about a majority of the board being African American.”
DeSantis issued an executive order to officially remove McGraw from office June 17, 2021. He nominated Mildred Russell for the remainder of McGraw’s term.
Russell’s appointment was part of a larger statewide trend of DeSantis-backed nominations to local school boards, which includes appointments made in Columbia and Broward County.
Fourteen months after she was replaced by Russell, McGraw returned to the campaign trail. An advocate and volunteer in the public school system since 1992, McGraw said her goal is to help all students find success, regardless of what path they wish to pursue.
Picking up where she left off, McGraw said she wants to finish what she started in her previous term. McGraw began the groundwork for raising $5 million for workforce development and education in 2020, and she said she hopes to apply for matching state funds.
As an alumna from Florida A&M University with a business degree and a master’s degree in education from Nova Southeastern University, McGraw said “no profession exists without education.”
“It’s about making sure we are diverse enough to provide options to all of our children to be successful,” McGraw said. “I want to make sure by fifth grade our children know whether they’re going on the college track or a career in technical education.”
Bridging the gap between minority and white students is another priority. Alachua County’s racial achievement gap, an educational disparity between groups of students based on race, is one of the widest in the state. There is a 47% gap between white and Black students for English Language Arts Achievement scores level 3 and above, according to The Florida Department of Education.
Reinforced by her previous removal from the board after she believed she had lawfully won the 2020 election, McGraw said transparency should be a countywide priority.
Alongside her plan for including the community in discussion and decisions, she said she plans on prioritizing children and their education.
“We want children to be successful,” McGraw said. “We want children to be happy to go to school. We want to empower children to do more.”
Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.
Alexa Herrera is a junior journalism major who is the metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. She is also a copy editor for The Florida Political Review and a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. In her free time she enjoys cheering on the New York Rangers during hockey season, listening to Harry Styles and spending time with her friends.