Two of Alachua County’s three contested school board races were decided during the August primary, but one remains for November.
Neither incumbent Gunnar Paulson nor challenger April Tisher earned 51 percent of the vote during the Aug. 28 primary, and so the pair will again be on the ballot on Nov. 6. The race is non-partisan.
Above, you can hear each detail their experiences and perspectives that they would bring to the job. Below, here’s a summary of their positions on key issues that emerged from WUFT’s questions.
Q: The $22 million annual sales tax referendum to repair schools that’s also on the ballot next month: Are you feeling confident that voters will pass it? And if they don’t, what’s your backup plan?
Paulson: Notes Brian Scarborough’s op-ed stated that there is no plan B. Stated that the county is now in this position because after the recession hit, the state reduced the millage from 2 mills to 1.5. Schools are now “in dire need of help” and the equity gap could possibly be solved if facilities are improved through the passage of the half-cent sales tax.
Tisher: “I genuinely hope that it passes… I’m not sure why there isn’t a plan B.” Understands that people are against it — not because of children’s needs — but because of a lack of trust in the oversight of the spending.
Paulson rebuts that the money has been spent correctly in the past and will be in the future.
Q: There’s been pushback in the past month about the implementation of the equity gap. Is the community fully on board with it?
Paulson: Touts the work of Valerie Freeman, the district’s director of equity and outreach, in soliciting community feedback during multiple meetings: “She is a dynamo.”
Tisher: “The African American community is 100 percent not OK with the plan.” Also appreciates the work of Freeman, but says there’s widespread unhappiness with how the plan is being implemented now. Wants to help bring in more stakeholders’ opinions and guide or update it as a living document.
Q: Has the district acted quickly enough in implementing filters to remove possible lead contamination from school water? And why isn’t it testing?
Paulson: Superintendent Karen Clarke told him last week they did have some tests done, but not in every school. “We have not found lead in the water.”
Tisher: This was one of the topics she heard early on after deciding to run for office. “The kids and I always noticed the (school) water just doesn’t taste very good.” She’s in favor of filters and also random water sampling.
Q: From newsletter subscriber Jyoti: What will you do to protect our children who may be covered under DACA or may not have documentation?
Paulson: “I haven’t looked at this legally, but what I would say is I would do everything I can to protect those kids and keep them in our schools.”
Tisher: “Helping and assisting them and finding a pathway for them and their families to be here legally would be the best solution.”
Q: What about homeless children? There’s a school district department that handles that exclusively. What could we do more?
Paulson: Notes the past successes of the Anchor Center Elementary School at Sidney Lanier that assisted such children. It’s something I need to look more into. Proposed looking at zoning students for a variety of schools instead of just one so that highly mobile student populations could stay in school.
Tisher: Wants to see social workers play a more integral role in the success of students across the district.
Q: From newsletter subscriber Debbie: What is your position on term limits?
Paulson: Sees both sides — that forcing new perspectives would bring fresh insight and solutions, but also losing institutional knowledge is harmful to progress.
Tisher: In favor of term limits. Believes the superintendent and other school board members can help imbue institutional knowledge to new members.
Q: From Paul: What would be the fairest criteria to use in evaluating a teacher before that teacher is forced to transfer schools?
Paulson: “We should look at the evaluation of the principal and what these teachers got on their most recent evaluations.”
Tisher: The VAM scores were the issue in a situation at Terwilliger Elementary School earlier this year. “The high stakes associated with it aren’t fair.”
Q: From Ann: What do you make of federal education policy under the Trump administration? Have you seen any effects of the policies from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos filter down to the district level?
Paulson: Hasn’t seen as many federal policies in place at the local level versus those from the state, including the district’s pending lawsuit against 2017’s HB 1769. Once passed, that bill has changed local control over Title I funding and when underperforming schools must be closed.
Tisher: “I think there was hysterical hype when (DeVos) was nominated. Personally, as a parent, I haven’t seen a whole lot of push.” Thought there might be more of a push for charter and private schools, but doesn’t believe that’s going to be a problem in Alachua County, where there’s a love for strong public schools.
Q: From Wendy: Why do teachers have to use online crowdfunding to get chairs for their students?
Paulson: “We’re woefully underfunded” in education by the state legislature. Believes that the state needs to reprioritize education funding.
Tisher: That was a motivator for me to run. Saw PTA do fundraisers when she was a parent. And now “my own child’s teacher for Kindergarten just started a crowdfunding for alternative, specialized seating for her students.”
Each candidate was offered a chance for a one-minute closing statement.
Paulson: “I’m running because we’re under attack in public education. I’ve been in this district for a long time, and I know you have to sometimes raise money. I raised money to get air conditioning in for the weight room at Buchholz. They didn’t give it to us. I went out and raised it. They should have put that in like they do other things. That’s just an example. We do three things on a school board: We oversee the budget. Eileen Roy wrote in a newspaper article, I’m the budget hawk on the board. I’m the one that makes sure every penny is spent wisely. I’ve spent a career learning about budgets. I also know we elect a superintendent… The last thing we do is we write policies. I’ve been writing policy. I used to be president of the Alachua County Education Association. I have the experience and will to fight for our children, not to stay the status quo.
Tisher: “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be campaigning this long. I thought, one way or the other, it’d be over in August, so this has been an experience I won’t forget — for sure. Again, I’m a mom of three, raising my family here, I think Alachua County Public Schools are worth fighting for. That’s why I’m running. I’m fighting to be an advocate not only for my children, but all the children across our district, and their teachers, and administrators, and parents and volunteers coming into our schools. I would just like to make our schools the best they can possibly be. I am a different candidate. I’m not a retired or current educator, so I think I can bring a different perspective to the board, and one that can complement the history and education of our other board members and the superintendent.”