Alachua County School Board elections: District 5 features pair of competing educators

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Kay Abbitt, left, and Preston Cowles are each seeking to replace Rob Hyatt on the Alachua County School Board.

With District 5 board member Rob Hyatt announcing that he won’t run for the seat he’s held since 2014, that district is guaranteed to have a new member elected later this month in either Kay Abbitt or Prescott Cowles.

Abbitt, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Armstrong State College, spent a total of 12 years teaching in Savannah, Georgia, and Alachua County Public Schools.

Afterward, she owned a supplemental educational services business that provided federally-funded free tutoring to students in Florida and North Carolina for seven years. She also co-founded and was until recently the director of Boulware Springs Charter in northeast Gainesville.

Cowles graduated from Talbot Elementary, Lincoln Middle and Eastside High School and received his bachelor’s in science education at the University of South Florida. He’s also been a middle school science teacher, a summer camp program director, a track coach and during the pandemic, he led the Alachua County School District’s COVID-19 Response Team.

Click the map to see the boundary lines of each school board member’s district.

Abbitt said she has faced challenges while running for the District 5 seat, which covers much of the southwestern portion of the county. She said she’s not a politician but an educator.

“I don’t have that political savvy that a lot of people have,” Abbitt said.  “I am very knowledgeable about a lot of education topics. And if you ask me (about) those, I could talk forever.”

Abbitt mentioned how it took time for her to be comfortable, walk up to a crowd of strangers, and sometimes deal with people calling her insulting names.

“You understand why good quality people don’t always run for public office because it’s not pleasant,” Abbitt said.

For Cowles, he said one of the hardest parts about the last few years is that there’s been a disconnect between people.

“We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to get together, face to face,” Cowles said.  “There’s been a lot of political polarization and how a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to spend time or work with people who aren’t like that, or who have had different experiences.”

Cowles felt his campaign overcame this by having conversations with people who come from all walks of life and finding out common ground: valuing public education.

Abbitt expressed how she doesn’t believe there are issues segmented to just District 5 but instead are countywide. Those include problems like low-performing schools, classroom behavior and teacher retention.

Abbitt wants the district to consider having longer school days. From there, she suggests some students could get another block of reading time or allow teachers to spend more time with students struggling in a particular class. Students could use the extra time to go back and remediate their skills.

She also believes in having teachers who are supported by an administration when behavior issues are present.

“I think it’s not just in low-performing schools, but in schools all across the district,” Abbitt said.

She also feels increasing teachers’ salaries will solve teacher retention. She noted that a teacher’s day never ends, and they sometimes require multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Cowles also said that even though he’s running in District 5, he’s still representing the entire county.

“Alachua County specifically has this remarkably interesting makeup where we’ve got the city of Gainesville, a typical college town,” Cowles said. “Then we got a lot of rural communities in the county.

As he grew up in the county, he’d like to connect with people outside of Gainesville. He wants to see the school board give more attention to students in smaller cities like Alachua and Archer.

He said he believes he’s the most prepared for the position, having worked with employees at each school across the district.

“I’ve seen the inside of the system from leading the COVID response and have committed this entire time not just to be a problem spotter, but to be a problem solver,” Cowles said.

Alachua County residents can vote early from Saturday, Aug. 13, to Saturday, Aug. 20, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The final day to vote is election day, Aug. 23, when polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Early voting locations can be found at votealachua.com.

About Elliot Tritto

Elliot is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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