35-year-old Lilliemarie Gore leads students of Idylwild Elementary School through a series of math exercises. Mrs. Gore was awarded the title of "2017-2018 Alachua County Teacher of the Year" earlier this month.


Courtney Thurston Simmons’ son attends private school but that didn’t stop her from getting up bright and early Saturday to learn about how she can help improve Alachua County Public Schools.

The Alachua County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations held an open forum, “Making Public Schools Everyone’s Priority,” in the Gainesville High School auditorium for people like Thurston Simmons, who wanted to learn more before voting on issues like the half-cent tax and the Children’s Trust.

“I have some pretty significant concerns about public education in Gainesville,” Thurston Simmons, 43, said.

Alachua County Superintendent Karen Clarke spoke to about 75 people about the half-cent sales tax initiative, which will be on the ballot in November, and how the increased revenue could improve the state of classrooms.

Attendees saw photos of current classrooms in Alachua County schools, some of which had broken windows and leaks. Thurston Simmons described the rooms as disheartening.

While she doesn’t mind paying her share to improve facilities, Thurston Simmons said she wasn’t satisfied with the all of the answers given at the forum on how the money would be spent and whether the tax would generate enough revenue.

“I’m a details person, and they didn’t really dive into the details,” she said.
Funding for security in schools should be mandatory, whether the tax passes or not, Thurston Simmons said. Right now, she only knows the possible funding may go to renovations such as new furniture and lighting.

Valerie Freeman, Alachua County Public Schools director of equity and outreach, focused on inequity in Alachua County schools and the new equity plan that was introduced. The 2018 Florida Standard Assessment showed that Alachua’s public schools were at the top of the list for an achievement gap between white and African American students.

Thurston Simmons said she was alarmed to hear about the inequity but was supportive of the Children’s Trust, a board meant to oversee funding for programs, that was discussed at the forum and could improve equity in the county.

“I want us to be first in a lot of things but not in racial inequity,” she said.

Contact Jessica Curbelo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jesscurbelo

Jessica Curbelo, a UF journalism junior, is one of the Alligator's crime reporters. She is also a senior editor for Her Campus UFL.