School Board Member Diyonne McGraw weighs in on alternative school models at the May 3 workshop | From Alachua County Public Schools broadcast video

BY AMBER THIBODAUX/Alachua Chronicle

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Alachua County School Board held a workshop on May 3 where they discussed the ongoing behavioral issues and discipline problems facing the district and how best to deal with them. Chief of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement Anntwanique Edwards gave a presentation that outlined six different models (shown below) that the school board could implement to provide further assistance to teachers and students. All six models focused on removing or relocating students with behavioral issues and giving them extra support in more structured settings. Edwards told the board that the referral rate has “skyrocketed,” not just in secondary schools but also in elementary schools, and that the types of behaviors leading to the referrals are of major concern.

SBAC workshop Models

Slide from Dr. Edwards’ presentation at May 3 workshop


“We know that increased trauma has occurred with many of our students, especially since COVID, and we would like to minimize the number of various behavioral types that are sitting on one campus,” Edwards said. She noted the various “neighborhood associated issues” (i.e., rival gangs) that carry over to school campuses but said she couldn’t say with certainty that those conflicts would be resolved by creating a second alternative school. She also mentioned the increase in student weapons charges and gang affiliations and worried about separating those students out while at the same time serving their individual needs off-site.

Career and Technical Education focus

After listening to the pros and cons of each model and associated costs, the board unanimously agreed to proceed with Model 4, which would change the service delivery at A. Quinn Jones (currently the only alternative placement school in the district) to a Career and Technical Education (CTE) focus. Edwards told the board that she had spent extensive time looking at alternative schools across the nation to see which models work best.

“What appears to be most consistent with alternative school placements is really about how we’re delivering services to students – being able to provide those wrap-around services, helping kids to be able to make connections between where they are now and their future, how they’re going to be prepared for it, the employability skills,” Edwards said.

She explained that those students who were most successful were graduating from their alternative school placements instead of going back to their zoned schools, then asked the board to consider investing more money into a setting where a CTE program and mental health services are offered all in one place. 

“There are kids who typically do well in smaller settings, and I think it is probably the fallacy a lot of times in education and other support areas where we take students and we put them into settings, and they do well, and they’re successful, and then we put them back into places where they were unsuccessful – when in reality, the culture and the environment of the small setting was what allowed them to have that success.”

Currently the student-teacher ratio at A. Quinn Jones is very low, with some classes having between 0-3 students per teacher (zero in cases where no students show up to class). The school has 181 spots available but only 107 students are enrolled; 21 of those students have committed felony offenses, and 31 are transfers from other alternative programs or school districts. The school is designed with an exit plan for students to return back to their zoned schools if possible. However, under the proposed Model 4, students at A. Quinn Jones would be provided with alternate education opportunities that are predicted to be of high interest, would receive instruction based on their individual learning styles and needs, and would be given help in behavior support and career readiness preparation. These students would ultimately graduate from A. Quinn Jones.

Edwards also suggested partnering with UF to deploy Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) interns at various schools, since the county only has one BCBA currently employed to serve the entire district.

Edwards said she had spoken with some people at UF and found that they provide other districts with BCBA interns, but not Alachua County. She concluded, “I think they are definitely amenable and open and so we have some upcoming conversations about how can we partner with [UF] in order to be able to get some of that insight from the people who specialize in working with behavior.”

Several factors have delayed staff’s response to board requests for better discipline

Edwards completed her presentation by acknowledging the “delayed responses” in addressing the behavior issues and said the delay had been caused by a lack of existing systems, the difficulty of creating a new system while dealing with day-to-day responsibilities, labor shortages, a lack of written documentation, and an increased number of crisis situations that require an immediate response.

Behavior Plan

Slide from Dr. Edwards’ presentation at the May 3 workshop


McGraw and Abbitt emphasize the need for communication and consistency

Board Member Diyonne McGraw said that she continues to be in favor of an additional alternative school because most of the staff members she’s spoken with say that the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model that the district currently follows is not working. “When a kid brings a gun to school and when someone is continuing to attack, they need to be pulled out, they need to be worked with,” McGraw said.

McGraw also addressed the importance of parental involvement and a Parent Academy, saying that she continuously receives phone calls from parents who need help: “Once we build relationships and you’re talking to parents, that’s extremely important.” 

“It’s not about snatching a kid out and separating them, but sometimes, given where we are past COVID, because there’s a lack of discipline – consistent discipline – in the homes, it is affecting us here at the school system. So when you talk about this, this is a lot of work. That’s why you need all the players,” McGraw said.

Member Kay Abbitt stressed the importance of having equal and consistent consequences for negative behaviors so parents and teachers understand what the consequences are for specific infractions. “If I vape in a bathroom, this is my consequence. It doesn’t matter if you’re an A student in school, or an F student in school, or purple or pink – this is what’s going to happen.”

“If you don’t know what the consequence is and if it’s not enforced consistently at schools – and I know for a fact that it’s not because I’ve spoken to teachers and deans and it’s not enforced… to me these things are very simple. You have a rule that someone has to follow, and you have a consequence, and you enforce it,” Abbitt said.

She also emphasized that the district needs to have a behavioral plan in place and “market it like crazy” with a no-nonsense approach, as well as a “Professional Development” plan that goes out to parents who may need help with learning coping skills or parenting techniques.

Chair Tina Certain wrapped up the discussion by taking an informal vote to proceed with Model 4 at an estimated cost of $64,000+, the least expensive of all the models proposed. She reminded the board that “something is going to have to be cut” to secure the funding. 

The workshop can be watched in its entirety here.

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NEWBERRY ‒ The Newberry City Commission on May 8 took steps to bring a Publix grocery store to the community. City Manager Mike New presented proposals for road improvements and traffic signaling for development of a grocery shopping center on State Road 26 east of County Road 235. The development includes a Publix supermarket and proposes roadway connections to State Road 26, County Road 235 and Newberry Lane.

The Commission unanimously approved a trio of matters relating to the development, the first of which was approval of a funding commitment letter to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) allocating funding for intersection improvements on State Road 26 in the vicinity of County Road 235 and Newberry Lane.

The Commission also approved executing a Locally Funded Agreement between FDOT and the City of Newberry related to funding for a traffic signal and related improvements on State Road 26 in the same vicinity. This project is expected to cost $800,000 - $1.6 million.

The commission also authorized New to execute a Traffic Signal Funding Agreement between the City of Newberry, Alachua County, Carolina Holding Inc. and Gromax Development related to funding for a traffic signal and related improvements on State Road 26 in the same vicinity. The cost to the City is expected to be $134,000 and will be funded out of the one percent sales tax revenues.

In 2022, the Commission approved the applicant’s site and development plan. Currently, the developer has received its other permits to proceed with construction with the exception of the driveway access permits from the FDOT and Alachua County Public Works (ACPW) despite submitting two detailed traffic studies of the roadway network adjacent to the development. According to the developer, the project has become time sensitive and obtaining the driveway access permits is now critical for the project to remain viable.

The City has contacted FDOT and ACPW regarding the urgency of the driveway access permits. FDOT transmitted a Locally Funded Project agreement and will release the permit if the City executes the agreement, which the Commission did on May 8.

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ALACHUA ‒ Nearly 1,000 new homes will be built near Alachua’s Santa Fe High School. On May 8, the Alachua City Commission approved a rezoning request on a 306-acre property that backs up to Briarwood Phase 1 Subdivision that fronts CR 235A. The newly rezoned property will be home to Briarwood Town Center, a 306.34-acre property that fronts U.S. Highway 441. The City Commission approved changing the City’s Official Zoning Atlas for Briarwood Town Center from Agricultural (“A”) (Alachua County), Community Commercial (“CC”), and Residential Multiple-Family -8 (“RMF-8") to Planned Development – Residential (“PD-R”) and Planned Development – Commercial (“PD-COMM”) on the property.  

The proposed PD-R zoning district allows for 598 single family residential units, and 15,000 square feet for amenity buildings. The proposed PD-COMM zoning district allows for 350 multi-family residential units, and 500,000 square feet of non-residential. Most of the site would permit a variety of residential uses including single family attached, and detached, and townhouses. Multiple family would be permitted only within designated areas located internal to the PD-R portion of the property.

In November 2020, the Alachua City Commission has approved the final plat for Briarwood Phase1 subdivision, which is located in the 17000 block of CR 235A, west of CR 235A and Santa Fe High School, south of the Meadowglen subdivision, and north of the Santa Fe Hills subdivision. Phase 1 received approval for 84 homes on 28.99 acres and is currently under construction.

On a lighter note, the Commissioners were recipients of a musical presentation by Alachua’s W.W. Irby Elementary School students. The youngsters performed three songs in front of a full house of proud parents and family members. After the performance ended, Mayor Gib Coerper and Irby’s Ms. Lalaine Foreman presented certificates to the students to honor their talents in music and their performance for the Commission.

In other business at the May 8 Alachua City Commission meeting, Alachua Habit for Humanity, Inc. Requested the City to donate a surplus city-owned vacant lot to build a house for an economically challenged family. Alachua Habit for Humanity, Inc. is a Florida not-for-profit corporation that works together with families, local communities, volunteers and partners to help people improve their living conditions.

The lot is on the east side of and fronting Northwest 136th Terrace, just south of Northwest 43rd Place. The lot was declared surplus by the City Commission at a public meeting on Feb. 24, 2014, after being found to be of negative value due to liability, maintenance costs, and no projected use for a City purpose. Habitat is now requesting the Commission to donate the property for a homesite. A family has been qualified and selected by Habitat to work alongside volunteers building the family a new home supported by donations of materials and dollars from businesses and others. The equity generated by the new homeowner’s labor and donations of others also yields an affordable mortgage. The Commission approved the request and will sign a Quit Claim deed and complete a transfer of Title.

In other City business, the Florida League of Cities recognized Mayor Coerper for his 20 years of service to the City of Alachua. The award is named in honor of longtime Apopka Mayor John Land, who served his city for 60 years. The award honors municipal officials for their years of dedicated elected service and public service on a city council/commission. The Florida League of Cities’ mission is to serve the needs of Florida’s cities and promote local self-government. Florida League of Cities Membership Programs Specialist Eryn Russell made the presentation to Coerper.

Another presentation of local talent featured a group consisting of Freddie Wehbe, Orlando Milan, Thalia Milan and Mitch Glaeser who informed the Commission about the success story of Okito America, from one location to three. The newest location will be in Alachua’s San Felasco Tech City on U.S. Highway 441. Okito America started in 2007 with a vision of improving the lives of families by introducing them to the art of Tae Kwon Do, Kick-Boxing and Self-Defense, as well as offering after school care and camps during summer and other times that schools are closed. The organization also provides free transportation to the facilities from schools. Depending on the day, children will participate in different activities such as homework, art, science, sports, basic Spanish, and Martial arts, supervised by instructors and staff. The uniform for Tae kwon-do is included upon registration.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) sent its National Response Team and joined the investigation into the May 4 explosion that injured at least four people at Air Liquide Advanced Materials in High Springs. At 4:01 a.m. on Thursday, May 4, the High Springs Fire Department was dispatched to Air Liquide, 17526 High Springs Main Street, for a reported explosion. Within minutes, firefighters arrived at the site of an active fire with multiple people injured.

Four Air Liquide employees were injured as a result of the explosion, one of whom was air-lifted by ShandsCair medical helicopter. The other three were transported by ground to area hospitals for evaluation and treatment and have been released. “The employee air-lifted by ShandsCair remains in the hospital as far as we know,” said City of High Springs Public Information Officer Kevin Mangan on Monday, May 8.

Gainesville Fire Rescue’s Regional Hazardous Materials (HazMat) team responded to the scene to evaluate the area of the explosion. After a thorough inspection by the HazMat team, it was determined the incident was contained and infrastructure in the affected building was secured. Alachua County Fire Rescue’s drone team was also requested to aid in the mitigation and investigation efforts.

No injuries to first responders were reported. High Springs Main Street was closed between Northwest 182nd Avenue and Northwest 174th Avenue for approximately nine hours. The cause of the explosion remains under investigation by the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office and The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said Mangan.

Air Liquide supplies industrial gases and services to various industries including medical, chemical and electronic manufacturers.

NRT members arrived in Florida on May 6 to assist the Florida Bureau of Fire, Arson, and Explosives Investigations and other local and state partners in this ongoing investigation. The NRT consists of Special Agents, Certified Explosives Specialists, Explosive Enforcement Officers, Certified Fire Investigators, Fire Protection Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Forensic Chemists, an Intelligence Research Specialist, a Medic, and an Accelerant Detection Canine with handler.

“ATF is going to help examine the scene, investigate the leads and follow the facts to how this tragedy may have occurred,” said Special Agent in Charge Kirk Howard. “Extending our unique expertise and capabilities demonstrates the division’s respect for our Central Florida partners and underscores ATF’s commitment to public safety.”

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Cont.:     Explosion still under investigation

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ A two-vehicle head-on crash occurred at approximately 6:15 a.m., Monday, May 8, at the intersection of U.S. Highway 441 and Northwest 202nd Street in High Springs. The original call indicated one driver was entrapped in their vehicle, which turned out not to be the case when emergency crews arrived.

The head-on crash occurred between a Chevrolet and Toyota Pickup truck and resulted in blocking the southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 441 for approximately one hour. Drivers were advised to seek alternate routes as crews worked to clear the site.

A formal crash report will not be available until later this week. Currently, it is unknown where the drivers were from. According to Public Information Officer Kevin Mangan, no one was transported to the hospital following the crash.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Never underestimate what a small group of 5th to 8th graders can accomplish given the proper guidance and motivation. On April 23, the High Springs Brewing company sponsored a fundraiser to send the Frogmen Robotics Team to the International Robotics Competition held in Long Beach, Calf. from May 12 - 14. The competition pits the 80 best robotics teams in the world against each other and is only open by invitation.

For the High Springs Frogman Robotics, it is the reward for two years of hard work by a new team The team, which has only been in existence for two years, has eight members ranging from 5th to 8th grade.

In its first year, the team proved it was a serious competitor, missing being invited to the world competition by one place. This close call served to make the members work even harder. This year they came in 2nd for robotics out of 647 teams that competed for the Florida State Championship and were invited to attend the international competition.

Out-of-state trips for teams can get expensive, and the Brewery along with the coaches scheduled a fundraiser to help defer some of the cost. The Steak-Out Restaurant was also instrumental in making the event happen, providing a food truck and helping with the planning, and also sponsored a 50-50 raffle. In the evening, 2911 Bar-B-Que took over the food offerings. Winn Dixie provided all the meat for the BBQ. Other sponsors were Triple A Porta Serve and High Springs Parks and Recs Department.

The Frogmen team set up a table to demonstrate their robots doing a variety of tasks and let other children run them with supervision. “It was a good success and we raised $6,500 to help pay for our trip” said coach Jason Sweat. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of both our sponsors and the members of the community who showed their support and contributed to our funds.”

Although Sweat is the team’s coach, he stresses that the coach’s role is more of a mentor than coach. Team members have to do everything from initial planning, design and production of the robots. “We are just here to advise them,” said Sweat. “This not only gives them experience in robotics and AI, but it helps them build character traits and a sense of responsibility that will carry on in their adult life regardless of the career path they choose.”

Sweat added, “We like to say that it is not about kids building robots, buy rather, robots building kids.”

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Today the Alachua County Commission voted unanimously to approve a $3 million settlement that follows through on Commissioner Ken Cornell’s promise to “make [Ability Housing] whole” after the board voted to withdraw their approval of $230,000 in local matching funds for the project. The settlement, which is for the purpose of “resolving any and all filed or unfiled claims” related to the Dogwood Village projects, obligates the County to pay Ability Housing $2,964,730.60, with $1.8 million of that amount going to purchase two parcels of land ($1,152,000 for the northern parcel and $648,000 for the southern parcel).

Funding could come from infrastructure surtax or general fund reserves

County Manager Michele Lieberman gave the board two options to fund the settlement: Option 1 would take the $1.8 million for the land from infrastructure surtax funds, with the rest coming out of general fund reserves; and Option 2 would take all of the funds from general fund reserves. Lieberman told the board that if they voted to use infrastructure surtax money, they would have to use the land for a purpose that is authorized under the tax.

Assistant County Manager Tommy Crosby told the board that taking $3 million from reserves “will deplete reserves quite a bit,” and that will mainly have an impact on the FY24 budget because those dollars will have to “come off the top” to get back to reserves of 5%, and that’s “just less that goes into the pot for other programs or tax reductions, or whatever the case may be.”


Chair Anna Prizzia said she did not favor allocating infrastructure surtax funds to the land purchase until they decide what to do with the land.

“A transformational, incredible opportunity”

Commissioner Ken Cornell said he was “really, really excited about today” and that he was comfortable taking the funds from reserves because the County will take about 60 days for due diligence, followed by 30 days to close on the property, and at that point, there will be less than 45 days left in the fiscal year. Cornell continued, “It will impact what we’re doing next year. But it should impact what we’re doing next year. This is a transformational, incredible opportunity that from my perspective brings us to kind of where we made a mishap a couple of years ago… We have an opportunity to rebuild trust in east Gainesville.” Cornell said it was important to listen to the community and spur economic development in east Gainesville and that if elected officials had followed through on promises made about a decade ago, the money would have come from Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) funds.

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked Crosby, “We’re not gonna go bust if we take it out of the general fund? Are we good?” Crosby responded, “No, ma’am. We’re fine.”

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he would like to see “single detached homes” on the land, “so folks can buy homes and have the American dream of home ownership.”

Cornell offered to let Chestnut make the motion, but Chestnut deferred to Cornell. Cornell’s motion was to approve the settlement agreement and any funds needed to perform due diligence, with the money coming from general fund reserves. Chestnut seconded the motion.

“A game changer”

Most people who spoke during public comment were very happy with the settlement. Wayne Fields called Cornell “a brother from another mother” and said the purchase of the parcels is “a game changer” for Azalea Trails residents. Several people thanked Cornell, Wheeler, and Chestnut for their previous votes to overturn the previous decision to provide matching funds; they encouraged Prizzia and Commissioner Mary Alford to join the other three and make the vote unanimous. Juanita Miles-Hamilton said, “This experience has been a learning experience that community involvement is certainly important and vital to communication.” Jo Beaty said the meeting was “a culmination of people’s input, coming and making a difference.”

Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said the issue had generated so much interest “because of the lack of investment, particularly the disinvestment in East Gainesville for generations” and that it is time “to move from performative equity” to “put your money where your mouth is.” When she reached the three-minute time limit that had applied to everyone else, she said, “I hope my commissioner status will give me a few more moments” and spoke for a total of seven minutes.

“It’s really beautiful to see the community this engaged”

After public comment, Prizzia said she was “emotional” and that “it’s really beautiful to see the community this engaged.” She said she had been asking for a “community engagement plan revamp” since she was elected: “It’s yet to show up, but I keep asking for it.”

Prizzia also pushed back on some criticisms of Ability Housing that had been made during public comment: “It wasn’t their fault; it was ours. This was not Ability Housing’s fault. This was the County Commission’s fault. When we put out an RFP, we solicited people to do this project. We asked them to come to us. They came in good faith, they came up with an idea. They looked for some affordable land. They found it, they started a process. As soon as they had enough information to be able to go to the community, they came to the community. I understand they did not do what you all believe they intended. And I understand that perhaps they were disingenuous–I don’t know about that part because the community stopped talking to me. And when I reached out, I didn’t get information back. And that’s okay. I understand trust was broken. I get it. But I want you to know that I really believed that we needed a developer for that property. We still need a developer for that property; we now have a massive piece of property with no developer.”

“We still need a developer for that property; we now have a massive piece of property with no developer.” – County Commission Chair Anna Prizzia

Prizzia said that other than small projects around South Main and Depot Park, east Gainesville has received few benefits from the CRA district. She said that when the County Commission gave the City control of CRA funds, “we gave all the power away… So the money that I would see as having to do big projects like these are in the hands of the City.” Prizzia encouraged the residents to stay involved to make sure the money is spent “the way it was intended to be spent.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the settlement agreement, with the money coming from County reserve funds.

After the vote, Wheeler said, “I’m glad for the journey, I’m glad for the victory, but I won’t be able to truly celebrate with you all until we actually see a plan and start breaking ground. So that’s when you will see me dancing with you in the streets. But for now, let’s just keep the momentum going, guys, because the work has just started, and it’s just begun.”

History of the project

The Dogwood Village project was approved by the County Commission in September 2020 on a consent agenda, and the State Housing Finance Authority (HFA) approved a loan award of $460,000 in August 2021. The County Commission voted in September to provide $230,000 to the HFA as a local match toward the project costs of about $25 million. The project was intended for families under 60% of adjusted median income, also known as “workforce housing.” The bulk of the funding for the project came from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC) through housing tax credit funds. 

At the September meeting, the commission voted unanimously to approve the funds but also voted to send a letter asking that the project be relocated to a different property in Alachua County. Cornell put the project on the December 13 agenda because he wanted to reconsider that vote and Ability Housing had given the board a deadline of December 14 to make any changes.

On December 13, the board voted 3-2, with Commission Chair Anna Prizzia and Commissioner Mary Alford in dissent, to withdraw the funds. Ability Housing sent an email to Prizzia on December 29, stating that FHFC would not permit the relocation of the Dogwood Village development and would not grant any extensions. Ability Housing said they would need to return the award before January 27, leading to the loss of the project, unless the board reversed its decision. Ability Housing said in the letter that if the board did not reverse course, the company would have “no choice but to return the award and seek damages from the County for its decision to breach its commitment”; those damages were estimated at $15 million. The board voted 3-2 on January 10 to affirm their earlier decision to withdraw the local match funding. The motion from Cornell that eventually passed was to direct staff to negotiate with Ability Housing to purchase the two parcels because, Cornell said, “then we and the City can control what gets programmed there.”

At the December 13 Alachua County Commission meeting, Cornell said that he believed Ability Housing had spent $2.3 million and that he wanted to “[make] them whole. I don’t want Ability Housing to not be made whole at all. In fact, if they will work with us, I want to work with them on future projects.”

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