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Santa Fe College President Jackson N. Sasser addressed a packed audience on Wednesday as the college was named one of 10 finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

GAINESVILLE – Santa Fe College has been named one of 10 finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s signature recognition of high achievement and performance in America’s community colleges.  Santa Fe College was selected from more than 1,200 community colleges nationwide.

The Aspen Institute, a national educational organization dedicated to fostering leadership, looked at student academic achievement in four areas in choosing their finalists.  Student learning outcomes, degree and college completion, labor market success in students securing jobs after college, and minority and low-income student success were criteria for judgment detailed by The Aspen Institute in their news release.

As one of the top 10 colleges in the nation, Santa Fe College now becomes a finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.  The winner and up to four finalists with distinction will be awarded a $1 million prize fund in March in Washington, D.C.

Florida is one of only two states in the U.S. with multiple finalists.  Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward College has also been named as a finalist.

The award announcement was made by Santa Fe College Student Body President David Durkee Wednesday morning, Sept. 5 to a packed audience of college and community dignitaries, alumni and media.

Josh Wyner, Executive Director of Aspen’s College Excellence Program said, “Santa Fe College’s high graduation and workforce placement rates speak for themselves.  The college understands that students must both complete degrees, and be able to apply their learning in the labor markets, getting good-paying jobs after college.”

“This is a singular recognition of the very broad shoulders upon which the college has built its success,” said Santa Fe College President Jackson N. Sasser.  “We acknowledge our former employees together with each current employee, and thank them profusely for their work.  This commendation is all about their rigor and high expectations,” he said.

Established in 1965 by the Florida State Legislature as a community college, today Santa Fe College is a four-year institution with more than 18,000 students enrolled in credit classes and an additional 12,000 students taking non-credit classes. In addition to the three Gainesville based campuses, the Northwest Campus, Gainesville’s downtown Blount Center, and the Kirkpatrick Institute for Public Safety in East Gainesville, classes are also offered in Starke, Keystone Heights, Archer and Alachua.

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Santa Fe High School’s new principal Beth LeClear has big plans for the school’s 1,000-plus students.  In addition to her goal of boosting the school’s graduation rate to 90 percent, she also wants to claim the highest graduation rate in the state.

ALACHUA – Santa Fe High School has a new principal, and she plans on implementing new programs to benefit students.

Beth LeClear, 48, has been in education for most of her life.  She holds multiple education degrees, including a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida.

She taught for eight years before switching to administration 20 years ago. LeClear said she decided to try out an administrative position and ended up loving it.

LeClear became principal at Santa Fe High School six weeks ago. Santa Fe is the only high school in Alachua and has an enrollment of 1,087 students.

“When you’re a teacher, you can touch 150 students,” LeClear said. “When you’re an administrator and you can hire great teachers and support them, you can touch 1,000 students.”

LeClear has set several long-term goals for Santa Fe High School. She wants to boost the graduation rate to 90 percent.

“I would like to see us have the highest graduation rate in the state of Florida,” she said.

She also wants to increase the passing rates for standardized exams like the FCAT and the ACT.

“I would like to see our students not only passing all the state-mandated required tests, but also passing them with a really great degree of knowledge,” she said.

LeClear said she believes that will happen because of the quality of Santa Fe’s teachers. She said the teachers are hardworking and genuinely care about students.

LeClear shared a story that she said shows how much Santa Fe High parents love their children.

“I sat while the band played for parents after band camp,” she said. “It’s so exciting to see parents appreciate their children and really care about their kids.”

Lacy Colson, a Santa Fe High School senior, likes Principal LeClear so far.

“She’s cleaned up the school a lot,” Colson said.

Senior Wayne Kemp agreed with Colson.

“We’ve had a lot more spirit days,” Kemp said.  “I think she’s really cool.”

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After months of work by volunteers from area civic organizations, churches and businesses, the Alachua Police Department has re-opened the Merrillwood Annex as a home to after school programs.

ALACHUA – The Alachua Police Department (APD) recently announced the re-opening of their Merrillwood Annex. The Annex was closed late last year to undergo a complete renovation of the interior.

APD has utilized the building in the Merrillwood Subdivision for approximately nine years. During this time, the building has served as an after school gathering place for the children of the Merrillwood community and the surrounding area.

Many sponsors donated time, hard work, and materials to make the renovations possible. The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, as well as Lowes of Alachua, Alachua County Housing Authority, Walmart Distribution Center, Early Learning Coalition of Alachua County, Alachua Self Storage and Bethesda Outreach Ministries of Alachua contributed.  The remodel includes new tile, kitchen cabinets and sinks, bathroom fixtures, shelving, storage space, new furniture, games/activities and a fresh coat of paint.

“We at the Alachua Police Department and the City of Alachua are excited about the fresh look of the annex and look forward to the many programs that will be offered here for the children in our community,” said APD spokesman Jesse Sandusky.

The use of the structure is being donated to the Police Department by the Alachua County Housing Authority and will primarily serve as a home to the after school program. The Alachua Police Explorers, who also helped with the renovations, will utilize the Annex for meetings and training.

The Alachua Police Department Merrillwood Annex is located at 15305 Merrillwood Drive. For information regarding the Annex and programs that will be offered, contact the Alachua Police Department Crime Prevention Unit at 386-462-1396.

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HIGH SPRINGS – The man accused of killing his son and wife at the family’s High Springs home in September 2011 is now relying on a defense of insanity.  In a notice filed with the court on Aug. 27, Alan Chipperfield, the attorney for Russell Dewayne Hogg, provided the names of two individuals to be called as witnesses as to his client’s state of mind.

Kenneth Smith of Fort White, Fla. is currently in a Columbia County Jail and is being called as a witness according to Chipperfield’s notice.  He also calls on Jeannie Morris of Statenville, Ga.

In addition to these witnesses, Chipperfield, an attorney with the Office of the Public Defender, also said he intends to use family photographs depicting Hogg along with his wife, Trenda, and son, Anthony, a booking photograph of the defendant and photos of the crime scene provided by the State.

Over the last several months, the court has seen a long list of legal maneuvering in Hogg’s case.  In mid-August, Hogg’s defense moved to have the court prohibit a 1986 conviction of lewd and lascivious assault as a prior violent felony conviction.   The defense argues that in the more than 25-year-old case, Hogg was placed on community control and probation and that the crime was not “violent.”

The State Attorney’s Office provided notice in April that it intended to call on a firearms analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a biology and DNA analyst and to introduce jailhouse call logs and telephone audio in addition to scene photographs, video and forensic evidence.

Hogg, who turned 59 years old on Aug. 31, is being charged with two counts of first degree murder in the September 11, 2011 slaying of his 48-year-old wife and 22-year-old son.

In the days preceding the shooting, High Springs Police Department (HSPD) officers were called out to the Hogg home in reference to a verbal altercation.

Apparently at the center of the dispute was a 2005 Ford pickup truck registered to Russell or Trenda Hogg, but driven by their son, Anthony.

Russell Hogg was reportedly angered when Anthony Hogg attempted to leave in the truck, which officers noted had an expired tag.

One HSPD officer wrote in a report, “All parties separated.  There was no physical violence.”  The officer also reported that he was dispatched to the home again, but the disturbance was “simply verbal.”

A source has reported to Alachua County Today that during the Sept. 9 incident, officers handcuffed Russell Hogg, but never charged him, allegedly because family member weren’t interested in pursuing the matter.

The State is seeking the death penalty against Hogg, who has been charged with premeditated murder.

In the week following the September shooting, a grand jury indicted Hogg on two counts of first degree murder, one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and two counts of aggravated assault with a firearm.

Hogg is being held without bail on the murder charges and on $100,000 for each of the other three charges.  His legal counsel initially submitted a plea of not guilty on his behalf on Sept. 22.

According to an ACSO arrest report, just before 1 p.m. on Sept. 11, Russell Hogg pulled into the driveway of the family home at 240 Poe Springs Road in High Springs.  He allegedly exited his vehicle, pulling out an AK-47 rifle and pointed it at his son stating, “I told you I was going to kill you,” to which Anthony Hogg replied, “shoot me then.”

Russell Hogg reportedly fired two rounds at his son, striking him in the torso.  The report states, “[Russell Hogg] then walked up to him and shot one round to his face.”

Upon realizing Anthony Hogg had been shot, Trenda Hogg ran outside where “Russell [Hogg] pointed the gun at her and fired several rounds at her,” the arrest record states.

Russell Hogg then threw the gun down and an eyewitness grabbed the gun and threw it under the house to prevent further access to it.  Russell Hogg then got into his car and left, officials report.

Two witnesses told investigators that Hogg stated his intentions to commit the crime beforehand.  “Russell was at their home and made the statement he “was going over to kill them.”  After the shooting, Russell Hogg allegedly returned to the witnesses’ home where he stated, “I told you I was gonna’ kill them,” the report states.

Columbia County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Russell Hogg on U.S. Highway 441 a short time after the shooting.

Hogg made several statements acknowledging that he killed his wife and son, according to Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sandra Myers.

Among his statements to investigators was that, “Tony [Anthony Russell] had gotten too big for his britches,” and that if he could have whipped his son, he would have, “rather than having to kill him.”

Myers wrote, “Russell [Hogg] also stated that it hurt him to see his wife laying there barely breathing because he did not want her to die.”

“I just killed my family and the bread winner of the home,” Russell Hogg allegedly said.

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Editor's note:  This story will be updated as new information is available from meetings on Sept. 6 and 7.  Please check back for the latest information.

[Sept. 6 3:59 p.m.]

Recently hired City Engineer John B. Morrison, Jr. turned in a letter of resignation, effective noon on Wednesday, Sept. 5, following a budget meeting on Tuesday in which his salary was completely eliminated from the proposed 2012/13 fiscal year budget.

Approximately $45,000 in salary and benefits were slashed by commissioners as part of their attempt to eliminate approximately $500,000 from their initial budget.

Morrison was hired by the City on April 23, 2012 to oversee the city’s engineering needs following the commission’s elimination of the city planner position.

As part of their action, commissioners set aside $10,000 for engineering contractual services, thereby eliminating a total of $35,000 from their bottom line.

Commissioners were back at again with a meeting at 3 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 6 and 7 to discuss further budget cuts.


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ALACHUA – The Alachua City Commission approved on first reading an ordinance during the Aug. 27 commission meeting that will change the zoning status of a substantial parcel of land in Alachua.

The 143-acre property is located north of U.S. Highway 441 and south of Meadowglen Subdivision. The current plans have allotted a 250,000-square-foot plot for commercial development. There are also 590 residential units that will be built.

In 2005, the zoning designation on the land was changed from Agriculture to a Planned Unit Development. After the Planned Unit Development status expired on June 15, the developers moved to change the zoning of the property to allow for residential and commercial developments.

The current proposal states that about 74 acres will be used for residential single-family units and about 36 acres will be used for residential multi-family units. About 33 acres are reserved for commercial development.

According to Brandon Stubbs, Alachua city planner, an informational meeting was held on May 17 for property owners within 400 feet of the property. No members of the public attended.

Monday’s city commission meeting focused on zoning, and there weren’t any discussions about what businesses or subdivisions might be built on the land.

“Nothing is being reserved here for them,” city attorney Marian Rush said. “This is just the zoning.”

The City has scheduled a second public hearing on Sept. 10.

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The native variety is both sweet and juicy

W_-_Grapes_2__DSF2644_copyIn his retirement, Don Loftus spends much of his time tending to his vineyard, in which he grow the Ison, Supreme and Delicious varieties of muscadine grapes.

ALACHUA – It’s that time of year again when the dark purple and golden grapes of Florida are ripe for the picking, just in time to bring a refreshing quencher to the dog days of summer.  For a few short weeks each year, Florida’s native muscadine grapes adorn vines in the wild and in area farms and vineyards.

At the Loftus Family Farm in Alachua, the grape picking season officially opened Saturday, Aug. 11.  Other area u-pick grape operations are also underway as the fruits ripen.

Weather, as unpredictable as it is, has a significant impact on the health of grape vines and on how long it takes their fruit to ripen.

Unlike last year’s scorching temperatures, which accelerated the ripening process, this year’s crop is right on schedule says Don Loftus, a local farmer and viticulturist.

“The Supreme grape seems to be coming on strong right now,” he said.

Perhaps mastering the technique of cultivating the grapes is knowing when they’re just right for picking.

“The biggest problem is picking the Supremes too early,” Loftus explained.  As much as those plump purple grapes call out to be picked, they’re probably not ready yet.  “You want to wait until they’re really dark,” he said.

Unlike other fruits, muscadine grapes do not ripen significantly once picked.

And as the weather goes, winters can be most damaging to the grape vines, but not this year.  Loftus said his plants survived the mild winter and are on track for a sizable yield this year.

“Our production is up and we expect to have a good solid production of somewhere around 7,000 pounds this year, but it’s hard to estimate” said Loftus.

With recent heavy rains, Loftus said he’s noticed that the grapes get even plumper than usual and to prevent breaking, there’s a technique for picking them – a technique he said he’s happy to demonstrate when customers visit his vineyard.

Loftus got into the business of growing muscadine grapes about seven years ago when he started planning for his retirement.  Since retiring from the University of Florida two summers ago, he has dedicated his time to the Loftus Family Farm, which includes the muscadine grape vineyard he has developed and grown from scratch.  Well into the throws of retirement, Loftus now realizes he left one full-time job for another, operating a vineyard and farm.

In 2004, Loftus first started converting the field that once grew persimmons, which were also negatively affected by North Florida’s winter weather patterns, into 1.5 acres of grapes.

The u-pick farm is one of a handful in the area and is open to the public.  The Loftus Family Farm specializes in the Ison and Supreme varieties of muscadine grapes, but is branching out into others as well.

Last year, Loftus began adding a new variety, the Delicious, a self-pollinating muscadine developed by the University of Florida.  He’s using the new variety to replace the Supremes lost to natural causes and winter damage in prior years.  It will take a few years before the Delicious will be on a scale ready for picking, but this year, they’re already producing fruit.  Loftus compares the fruit to the Supremes, joking, “As their names suggests, they really are quite delicious and they have the same crunch and taste to them.”

The ‘Delicious’ variety is also disease resistant and is among the top yielding muscadines.

Loftus said he plans to eventually expand the vineyard by another half-acre, probably including golden muscadine varieties.  Loftus has his hands full meticulously attending to the 14 rows of grape vines, each several hundred feet long and none of which are sprayed with potentially dangerous chemicals and pesticides.

Indigenous to the southeast region of North America, muscadine grapes ripen in late summer.   Right about now seems to be a good time to pick grapes at the Loftus Family Farm where avid pickers will be welcomed to their hands-on picking experience. Meanwhile, Loftus says thousands of pounds of the juicy dark purple and black grapes await eager pickers.

The vineyard has already become a popular spot among many people who are aware of the u-pick farm.  Loftus credits some of that success to the well-manicured rows of grapes and relaxing atmosphere at his family’s farm.  Loftus said many pickers like to eat the grapes as they are, some use them for producing wine and others for making jelly and sauces and freezing for later consumption. Florida’s $20 million-a-year grape industry is typically the second- or third-largest market for table grapes and wine in the country.

The Loftus Family Farm keeps it simple again this year, charging an even $1 per pound of grapes.

The address for the vineyard is 15585 NW 29 Street, Gainesville.  East of Alachua on NW 156th Avenue, the farm is at the midway point between State Road 121 and County Road 231.

Generally open from mid-August to early October, pickers are welcome on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 until 6 p.m.  Appointments are also available Monday through Friday for anyone wishing to arrange a picking party.

Additional photos, health benefits, directions to the vineyard and uses for muscadine grapes and other information are available at LoftusFamilyFarm.com

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