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Alachua County School Board takes first step in long process to fill a key vacancy

The Alachua County School District does not currently employ a full-time language translator, even though it's mandated by the federal government.

Jackie Johnson, director of communications and community initiatives for Alachua County Public Schools, highlighted why access to translation services for all students is so important. At a school board meeting in October, Johnson said she received a call a few days prior to the meeting about a student considering suicide.

“The student was from a Spanish-speaking family and the parents had no English language abilities,” Johnson said. “And unfortunately, our OPS person was in class and was not able to be there. So, there was a lot of scrambling that afternoon to find somebody who could share this information with the parents.”

Johnson said that cases this severe happen rarely but it still demonstrates the need for a specialist language translator and interpreter who can be made available to ACPS students and families during any time of the day.

After a long discussion, the Alachua County School Board unanimously voted on Oct. 19 to approve a job description for a professional technical specialist language translator and interpreter. The position would cover written and verbal translation and interpretation services for any language other than English for Alachua County public schools. The translator would also handle conveying districtwide information and other educational or school-related information to staff, students and parents in desired languages.

Currently, the school system relies on a part-time OPS translator with a limited number of hours who provides translation services only in the mornings to ACPS students and families.

Another reason why this position is necessary is that federal funding that the county currently relies on, such as, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER fund, requires school systems to provide foreign language translation to families that need it, according to Johnson. Not having the position currently, makes them in violation of those rules.

A member of the public, Sarah Rockwell, who is a candidate for the District 3 position of the Alachua County School Board, also called attention to the need for a full-time translator by sharing a story on behalf of someone who could not attend the meeting. Rockwell said her friend, who is an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, advocate, attended an elementary school child’s IEP meeting that had to be postponed because the student was asked to come in to translate for his parents at his own meeting.

“That should never happen,” Rockwell said. “It doesn’t meet federal requirements as Ms. Johnson pointed out. There are a lot of grants and other federal laws that require that we have translators available and Spanish is the second most common language in this county.”

Cheryl Russell, who runs the Autistic Disability Advocate page and runs the Alachua County Disability Resource Expo, did not respond to multiple messages for comment on the story.

According to the U.S Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, schools must, "communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English.” They cannot require a student or untrained staff member to provide translation services.

When school board members Mildred Russell and Gunnar Paulson expressed hesitation in taking action on approving the job description because of budgetary concerns, other board members weighed in.

Tina Certain, a school board member representing district 1, urged her colleagues to not be frugal when voting on the issue; she reminded them that a lawsuit over this vacancy could cost the county more than the proposed salary of the translator.

“This is not like a wish list type job, like a fluff-type job,” said District 1 School Board Member Tina Certain. “This is a federal requirement. That parent who had the elementary child who came in to interpret could actually probably sue us.”

Despite the job description being approved at the meeting, the county does not anticipate hiring someone to fill the specialist language translator and interpreter position until the next fiscal year, according to Johnson.

Julia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing