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Alachua County School District High School Students Are Unhappy About Their 2016 Graduation Venue

Seven months before high school graduation, Buchholz senior Julie Diehl is fighting the decision to hold her commencement ceremony under undesirable circumstances at a venue she feels doesn't have much pomp.

Due to the upcoming renovations at the O'Connell Center, the 2016 graduating classes of Gainesville High School, F.W. Buchholz High School and Eastside High School will be walking across a stage at Citizens Field to receive their diplomas. Diehl started an online petition that has received more than 800 signatures.

Her goal: have the ceremony moved to a different venue.

"There's not a lot of accessibility at Citizens Field," Diehl said, "It's not a very nice or memorable place."

Karen Clarke, assistant superintendent for the Alachua County School Board, said the school board has been working since June to ensure that graduation at Citizens Field is a memorable night for the class of 2016.

"Our goal is to provide the best possible experience for those students as we can," Clarke said.

Clarke said that no indoor venue could accommodate the ceremonies without resorting to a ticket system, which would only allow one or two of each student's family members to attend. If they held the ceremony at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, for example, each student would only be able to invite two family members, Clarke said.

In preparation for next June's graduation ceremonies, Clarke said the school board is giving Citizens Field a "facelift" to make the venue more attractive. They will do this by painting bathrooms, sanding and painting the undersides of the bleachers, providing "cooling tents" with misting fans and upgrading the sound system.

City Commissioner Todd Chase said the school board has put a lot of thought and planning into the 2016 commencement.

"I'm speaking as a parent. I have two boys that are going to be graduating next June from Buchholz," Chase said, "I'd certainly like it to be an event they can enjoy and remember."

Chase said the backlash is due to shock of hearing the news. He said the school board should have had better, faster communications with students and parents. Diehl said many people were just finding out about the commencement plans even though Clarke said the decision was confirmed in June.

Still, "the reality is there are only a few venues that work," Chase said.

Diehl said the commencements should be moved to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, like the University of Florida's ceremonies in 2015. The problem with this idea, according to Clarke: there is no make-up day available if a ceremony were to get rained out.

Weather is a major concern, Clarke said, and Citizens Field is the only venue with the necessary capacity and ability to reschedule if undesirable weather presents itself.

Jake is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.