Superintendent is latest change agent to face layoff


We tend in this town to crucify agents of change.

We have seen two successive City Managers fail for trying to make Gainesville government more nimble and responsive.

So it’s no surprise to learn that Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon is likely to be fired.

On the contrary, the school district is even more insular and resistant to change than the municipal government. And school board members tend to come from former teachers and principals and are therefore quite comfortable with the status quo of the district.

Simon’s apparent sin is that she eliminated a handful of administrative positions. Judging by the comments of his detractors, this made virtually everyone who works for the district uncomfortable.

But let’s remember why Simon got the job in the first place.

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She was hired by the last popularly elected board majority of three black women. Race is relevant here because they wanted to do something about the shameful fact that Alachua County — that renowned college community where learning is the currency of the kingdom — has the worst white/black student achievement gap in Florida.

This is something that should make us uncomfortable.

So how does Simon manage to “close the gap”? It’s hard to say now.

COVID has thrown just about everything into crisis management mode. Not to mention, the district chose to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “freedom to infect” policies.

But it wasn’t COVID that got Simon in hot water.

First, one of three black female board members, Diyonne McGraw, was fired over what amounts to a technicality. The booter was none other than DeSantis, who replaced McGraw with Mildred Russell.

And suddenly, the new majority consisted of two white men — both of whom had careers in the district — and a Republican who is essentially Governor DeSantis’ proxy on the board.

You have to appreciate the irony of Rob Hyatt, a dead-in-the-blue Democrat, and Gunnar Paulson, a former teachers’ union president, teaming up with Russell to eventually fire Superintendent Simon.

After all, Russell’s party wants to stop teachers talking about race and gender and cleanse school libraries of “objectionable” books. Talk about making educators feel uncomfortable.

The acrimony between Paulson and Simon is well known. She won’t even meet him without the presence of a witness. So, yeah, it’s personal.

Hyatt’s motives are less clear, but it’s no secret that he clashed with McGraw, Tina Certain and Leanetta McNealy, the three black women who hired Simon.

It was a breathtaking act of spite when Paulson, Hyatt and Russell joined forces to deny Certain her turn as board chair. They certainly put Certain in his place.

That’s not to say there’s an element of racism in any of this. But there are two types of racism: personal and institutional. And the latter is by far the most durable and damaging.

Simon drew national media attention for insisting that students mask up in defiance of DeSantis’ orders. From Russell’s perspective, Simon’s head will make a wonderful addition to DeSantis’ trophy case.

But Paulson and Hyatt seem determined to protect the neighborhood from a superintendent specially hired to change its culture.

If the district’s failure to close the student achievement gap isn’t a vestige of institutional racism, then what is? Exactly what interests are served by firing Simon?

Certainly not the interests of African Americans in Alachua County.

Ron Cunningham is the former editor of The Sun’s editorial page. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at ron@freegnv.com.

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