News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

With the vote commencing Friday, tensions are growing around possible Newberry charter school conversion

Brandy Oldman, standing at the left microphone, asks Joel Searby a question about the charter conversion during the first meeting about the campaign in Archer in February. (Chandler Hawkes/WUFT News)
Brandy Oldman, standing at the left microphone, asks Joel Searby a question about the charter conversion in the first Archer city meeting in February. (Chandler Hawkes/WUFT News)

Parents, teachers, and students are set to begin voting this week on the Newberry charter school initiative, which would turn Newberry High School, Oak View Middle School, and Newberry Elementary School into community-based public charter schools.

The vote begins on Friday and runs through the following Friday, April 12. The votes will be counted in a public meeting on April 17 at 8:30 a.m. at the Mentholee Norfleet Municipal Building in Newberry.

The initiative was set in motion on Feb. 19, when an organization called Education First for Newberry notified the Alachua County School Board of its plans to push for the vote.

Melissa Hawthorne, a teacher at Newberry High School and co-chair of Save Our Schools Newberry, was taken aback by the announcement, as were many others in the community.

“We felt shocked and flabbergasted that this really well-developed plan was just dropped on the community out of the blue,” Hawthorne said.

This contention is based on the time frame in which the initiative must be voted upon. State statute states that the vote must be completed within 60 days from the date of the initial request. This means that in just 60 days, members of the community had to educate themselves and vote for their kids’ and the community’s future.

Below are the key points regarding the initiative and the feelings of community members:

What is Education First for Newberry, Inc. and Save Our Schools Newberry?

Education First for Newberry, Inc. is the leading organization behind the charter school conversion initiative. According to its website, it is a 501(c)4 not-for-profit educational organization. It formed in December as a group of parents and community leaders who believe there is a way to improve upon the selected schools in areas like maintenance, discipline, and classroom size.

For example, a specific incident that the organization cited was an air conditioning issue in Newberry High at the beginning of the school year. The school was without fully functioning air conditioning for 11 weeks. Education First’s supporters said the problem could have been resolved quicker if the school had fixed it themselves rather than going through the school board.

Archer resident Joel Searby is spearheading the initiative and is its spokesperson.

“It’s been amazing to be a part of this as a parent, as a coach, and as somebody who is really involved in the community,” Searby said. “That is our leadership team. It is parents, teachers, and community leaders who want to see this happen, who brought it forth, and we came together to make a plan and make it happen.”

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe, wearing a blue jacket, discusses school zoning with a small group of parents, teachers, and community members at the most recent Education First for Newberry city meeting. (Chandler Hawkes/WUFT News)

Save Our Schools Newberry is the counter-campaign to Education First for Newberry, Inc. This organization is made up of parents and teachers from the community who oppose the conversion and want the schools to remain the same. They formed the opposition movement in late February for those who did not want the proposal to go through and fight back.

Brandy Oldman, a parent and member of Save Our Schools Newberry, said her reason for opposing the proposal is that she hasn’t seen enough to put her faith in the promises of the “Yes” group.

“They cannot make the guarantees they are making,” Oldman said. “They are feeding people hopes and dreams, and it’s not going to go like that.”

Hawthorne also echoed Oldman's message: “Parents need to know that the charter school group is making promises they can’t possibly keep and calling them guarantees.”

What will the schools look like if they are converted?

The only real change within the schools themselves will be that they will no longer be under the school board’s control and will be freer to do things on their own, like allocate funds where they see fit and directly address issues when they arise.

An area of concern among the community has been who exactly will lead the schools post-conversion.

The original plan was for the Newberry City Commission to act as the governing board for the schools for the first three to five years following the conversion. People in Archer pushed back against that plan, and the Education First for Newberry organizers amended that proposed structure.

The new board plan will still involve the Newberry City Commission, but three of the seats will now be comprised of the Archer City Commission, Education First for Newberry, and teachers to ensure Newberry city commissioners do not have sole influence.

Who can attend?

According to Searby, all students currently enrolled in the three schools will be guaranteed to attend these schools through their high school graduation if they choose to do so. There will also be a sibling preference to avoid splitting up families potentially.

The question being asked here is the true meaning of the word guarantee. Currently, capacity and overcrowding are issues at Newberry Elementary and Newberry High, but mainly at Newberry Elementary, which is at 139% capacity. The charter initiative looks to counter this issue with additions to the schools in coming years that will help raise capacity.

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe spoke about why the charter is needed to handle this situation, not the school board.

“We have begged for years and years to add capacity, and we have been denied,” Marlowe said in a March 26 city meeting. “Newberry stands ready to add capacity.” 

Another change to the original plan is zoning for students who are not already in the school system. The original plan was to use a radius around each of the schools to determine who could attend, and that radius was expected to be approximately six to nine miles. This caused concern for many people, especially in the city of Archer, due to the more distributed geography of the area.

After hearing those frustrations and concerns, the campaign’s leaders decided the zones would not change for these schools, and they would remain exactly as they are now.


Education First for Newberry, Inc. recently released a detailed breakdown of their initial budget for the public to see. Included within the budget is a student transportation plan and their proposed teacher packet. To help curate their budget and ensure that it could work, they consulted with financial expert Dr. Andy Binns, who has previous experience as a financial director for Palm Beach County Schools.

According to Binns, there is “no question in my mind” that these schools will be able to operate and be successful with this budget.

However, Hawthorne contends that this new system will not be financially sound and that it is a gamble.

“A conversion charter will receive no federal funds for capital outlay to improve or build new facilities,” Hawthorne said. “This means that the district's current plans to rebuild the schools at Newberry Elementary would happen much sooner than the proposed charter schools could ever hope to build or expand.”

For budget details as well as teacher packet information, visit

Effects on school board

If the charter initiative passes, then the Alachua County School Board gets put into a challenging spot, according to district spokesperson Jackie Johnson.

She said the uncertainty is a big worry for the school board, especially on the zoning and transportation front.

“We will have to figure out which school they will attend and how they will get there,” Johnson said. “Part of the issue is we don’t know which kids will be left out, and that could change from year to year.”

Effects on the community

This is a community-altering vote that has people taking sides, and anytime that happens, rifts can form within the community itself.

Derek Danne is the parent of a 7-year-old first grader at Newberry Elementary and an advocate for the conversion, and he said that he has seen the opposite. Danne also serves as the elementary school's parent-teacher organization treasurer.

He said there hasn’t been a shift in the organization over the last month, and they have received even more engagement.

“We have received more volunteers for the spring carnival coming up, which is nice,” he said.

 On the other hand, Oldman feels the opposite.

“I hate it,” she said. “I love Newberry, and I’ve never felt left out or anything until this…Even at the school pickup line, everyone used to play together, and now one side is over here, and one side is over there, and the tension is palpable.”

The vote

The upcoming vote will be on a 50% plus one basis and will involve teachers and students. For example, Newberry Elementary has a student population of 656 and a teacher population of 44. For the vote to pass, a minimum of 23 teachers must vote yes. On the student front, a minimum of 329 students must participate in the vote, with at least 165 voting yes. If neither of these thresholds are met, then the conversion will not move forward.

 One household will receive one single voting ballot regardless of how many students live in that house. If a parent is also a teacher, then they will receive both a teacher ballot and a parent ballot.

(Charts by Chandler Hawkes/WUFT News)

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