ALACHUA ‒ To the casual passerby, Alachua was transformed into a sea of vibrant pink tee-shirts on Saturday morning, May 4, 2024. In a dedicated effort to sustain the natural beauty of the area, the City of Alachua hosted the 2024 Great American Cleanup from 8:30 a.m. to noon. This annual event stands as Alachua County's most extensive community volunteer improvement project of its kind, drawing residents from all walks of life to contribute to the betterment of their surroundings.

Great American CleanUp Flower BedMonths prior to the event, Alachua rallied its residents, calling for volunteers of all ages to participate in the cleanup. The emphasis was on fostering a shared responsibility toward community pride and environmental stewardship. With cleanup and beautification projects of varying difficulty levels, the event provided ample opportunities for individuals, both young and old, to make a tangible impact in just a few hours.

Prior to the event, Rodolfo Valladares, Assistant City Manager and former Public Services Director for the City of Alachua, expressed pride in the city's consistent engagement with the Great American Cleanup. “We are proud to participate each year in the Great American Cleanup, the nation's largest community improvement program,” said Valladares. “It’s a wonderful time for The Good Life Community to showcase one of our core values: neighbors helping neighbors.”  

Projects were designed to enhance the aesthetic appeal of key locations within Alachua. Volunteers descended upon the Alachua Police Department to undertake flower bed cleanup and plant new foliage, while in the Towne Center Area, the focus was on landscaping beautification. In the downtown Community Development District, volunteers rolled up their sleeves to tackle moss removal and Bradford Pear tree trimming, aiming to breathe new life into public spaces and cultivate a renewed sense of pride in the community.

Trash cleanup activities were equally integral to the day's efforts, with volunteers working at Criswell Park and the Mill Creek Wetland Park (Mill Creek Sink), reflecting the City's commitment to environmental sustainability and the preservation of green spaces and community gathering spots.

In total, over 60 volunteers joined forces planting over 200 plants, removing moss from 12 Bradford Pear trees and filling 14 bags of trash.

To ensure the comfort and safety of all participants, the City provided breakfast starting at 8 a.m., with lunch available at the conclusion of the event. Essential tools such as trash bags, safety vests, gloves, maps, and instructions were furnished to facilitate the cleanup efforts.

The City of Alachua’s Great American Cleanup is part of the national effort by the same name that is the nation’s largest volunteer community improvement program that motivates individuals to take greater responsibility for the beautification of their community and the collection of litter.

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ALACHUA ‒ It was a hot yet productive week and weekend for the City of Alachua’s Recreation & Culture Department. After a week of practices on the outside fields, 399 Recreation & Sports Youth Volleyball and High Springs Youth Volleyball hosted games at Legacy Multipurpose Building and the Hal Brady Gym.

On Friday the A.L. Mebane Alumni hosted a fish fry for local seniors at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex. Locals provided amazing grub and the City’s Human Resource Department contributed an assortment of desserts. The event was popular with the hundreds of local residents who attended and shared memorable conversations with each other.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday the Raiders of Santa Fe Babe Ruth Softball hosted a 50 team mid-season classic fundraiser for the Jeremy Payne Foundation. Payne Strong works directly with “Head for Cure,” a non-profit that provides support to families dealing with brain cancer. Jeremy Payne was an outstanding individual who coached and impacted many girls in the Raiders organization.

Teams from Alachua/High Springs, Newberry, Wrigley, Melrose, Keystone, Bradford, Dixie and Bronson all participated from ages 4 to 17. Producing a top-notch tournament is no easy task, and the success of this tournament was due to Gene Findley Jr., Chuck McCray and the Raider volunteer staff for producing.

Coming up this weekend the Parks & R.E.C. Department and A.C.T.F.O.R. will host youth soccer games at the High Springs Sports Complex and Civic Center Park. Teams from across the county will participate. Everyone is invited to come out and support area youth.

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NEWBERRY ‒ The Newberry Board of Adjustment met following the April 22 Newberry City Commission meeting to consider a site and development plan for Ultimate Boat, RV and Mini Storage Expansion. The property is located on the south side of State Road 26/West Newberry Road, between Southwest 218th Street and Southwest 226th Street.

The application was brought to the City by eda consultants, inc.’s Director of Planning Clay Sweger, acting on behalf of Todd Russo, operator of Tibbets Land Holdings, LLC.

Newberry Principal Planner Jean-Paul Perez presented the site and development plan to the Board. Perez said the property is within the City’s Urban Reserve Area and consists of a 100,000 square feet pre-engineered metal building for self-storage, a 27,000 square feet pre-engineered metal structure for covered vehicular storage and related site improvements such as a parking lot and stormwater basin.

Perez said the site and development plan was considered on April 1 by the Planning and Zoning Board, which recommended approval with minor changes.

The drawings identified the location of the Knox Box for emergency access to the facility, landscaping and the location of an eight-foot fence for screening of the self-storage area.

Perez said the City recommended approval of the site and development plan.

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NEWBERRY ‒ The dispute over whether the Newberry Elementary School charter conversion achieved enough ballots to move forward has not yet been resolved. Monday, Education First Newberry, Inc. (EFN) posted on its “Yes Newberry” Facebook page that the Florida Department of Education (DOE) has “confirmed today that per state statutes, a 50% vote threshold is the requirement for the teacher vote for passage of a charter conversion. Having already achieved the 50% threshold for the parent vote, Newberry Elementary School has thus passed the conversion vote and will begin its charter application for submission to the state Charter Review Commission.”

Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson challenges EFN’s assertion. In an email statement sent out Tuesday, Johnson stated, “As of the end of business today, the district had not received any official notification from the Florida Department of Education about changing the results of the Newberry Elementary School conversion vote.”

Johnson added that the District must adhere to State Board of Education rule 6A-6.0787 of the Florida Administrative Code. She also stated that EFN reiterated the necessity of meeting the administrative code requirements “on several occasions, including in letters to all three school principals, on their website, and in statements by their leadership during community meetings.”

A distinction in language between Florida Statute Section 1002.33(3)(b) and the Florida Administrative Code rule 6A-6.0787 is at the heart of the dispute and ultimate outcome of the charter school conversion effort.

Florida Statute Section 1002.33(3)(b) states in pertinent part, “An application submitted proposing to convert an existing public school to a charter school shall demonstrate the support of at least 50 percent of the teachers employed at the school and 50 percent of the parents voting whose children are enrolled at the school, provided that a majority of the parents eligible to vote participate in the ballot process, according to rules adopted by the State Board of Education.”

Florida Administrative Code rule 6A-6.0787(3)(d) was promulgated after the enactment of the state statutory provisions allowing for charter school conversion. That administrative rule states, “If a majority of teachers employed at the school and a majority of voting parents support the charter proposal, the conversion charter application must be submitted….”

The difference between the statute and the rule is whether more than 50 percent of teachers must approve or if 50 percent approval is sufficient, as stated in the Statute. The rule was adopted and has been in effect since June 2010.

Alachua County Today has obtained a copy of the email from Adam Miller, Senior Chancellor at the Florida Department of Education. In that email, Miller states, “The statute provides that in order to submit an application the applicant must demonstrate at least 50% of the teachers employed at the school voted in favor of converting the school to a public charter school.”

While charter conversion attempts failed at Oakview Middle School and Newberry High School, the picture remains a bit hazy at Newberry Elementary School. Parents at the elementary school voted in favor of the conversion with 149 “yes” votes compared to 125 “no” votes. The concern at Newberry Elementary School centers primarily on a single ballot among those cast by teachers. Of the total 44 eligible teachers, 22 affirmatively voted in favor of the transition while 17 affirmatively voted against the change. Since four teachers at Newberry Elementary abstained from voting, they counted as “no” votes, bringing the votes against the conversion to just 21.

In contest is one ballot in favor of conversion, which was a parent ballot inside a teacher envelope, and could account for the 44th teacher, bringing the total of teachers in favor to 23. The ballot was disqualified, however, based on the uncertainty as to how it should be counted. If it is simply not counted, then exactly 50 percent of the teachers at the school voted in favor of the conversion. The controversy appears to be whether 50 percent is sufficient or if a majority is required for the measure to pass.

Chancellor Miller also wrote, “If a conversion charter school application is submitted to either the Alachua County School Board or the Charter School Review Commission, and the application can successfully demonstrate that at least half of the teachers voted for conversion, then the applicant has met that threshold requirement.”

When asked about any challenge by Alachua County Public Schools of the conversion, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe responded, “We can find no opportunity for [the District] to challenge. The application goes to the charter review board, not the [School Board of Alachua County]. If the review board approves the application, it is done.”

Marlowe, who has been an avid supporter of the conversion to charter schools also said in an email to Alachua County Today, “The whole community of Newberry is excited to have the opportunity to welcome NES as our first community school.”

There was no doubt that both parents and teachers voted no on conversion of Oak View Middle School with 244 parents voting against conversion and 134 parents voting in favor of conversion. Teachers at Oak View Middle School turned down the conversion with an affirmative 40 votes against and just nine in favor of the proposed change. Two teachers abstained from voting, and so therefore count as a “no” vote, leaving a total of 42 votes against conversion.

Similarly, 149 parents of Newberry High School students voted against converting to a charter school compared to 114 casting ballots in favor. The story was a little different when it came to teachers at the high school, with 17 voting in favor of converting to a charter school compared to just six teachers affirmatively voting “no” to conversion of the school. There were six other teachers who abstained from voting, bringing the total number counted against the change to just 12 votes.

If EFN is able to proceed, Newberry Elementary School would be converted to a charter school effective with the 2025-26 school year.

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WALDO – On Saturday, April 27, at 4:45 p.m., emergency crews from Alachua County Fire Rescue, Melrose Fire Department, and the Windsor Fire Department rushed to the scene of an RV fire on U.S. Highway 301, just south of the City of Waldo.

Emergency Unit 42 arrived to find the RV fully engulfed in flames, with the fire spreading to an adjacent vehicle. Despite the intensity of the blaze, firefighters were able to swiftly bring the situation under control. The occupant made it safely out of the vehicle prior to the arrival of fire crews. 

However, both the RV and the accompanying vehicle were complete losses. The incident led to the closure of the northbound lanes of U.S. Highway 301, causing traffic delays as authorities worked to contain the situation.

Following the extinguishing of the fire, emergency crews undertook a thorough overhaul of the scene to ensure there were no remaining hot spots or hazards. Once deemed safe, the area was turned over to law enforcement for further investigation and traffic control.

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ALACHUA ‒ After more than 17 years as Vice President of Advancement at Santa Fe College (SFC), Chuck Clemons will be retiring from his position.

ClemonsWAn announcement by SFC of Clemons’ retirement spoke to the college’s growth and development across various facets of its operations, from academic expansion to infrastructural enhancements. “Under his leadership, the college expanded scholarship opportunities. The Santa Fe College Foundation now awards more than $1.6 million in student scholarships annually. VP Clemons was instrumental in raising funds and support to help support several capital projects and expand a multitude of educational and academic opportunities to citizens throughout the service district.”

Beyond his professional achievements at SFC, Clemons was elected in 2016 to the Florida House of Representatives, District 21, serving Dixie, Gilchrist, and part of Alachua County. He currently representants District 22, serving Gilchrist, Levy and part of Alachua County and serves as the Speaker Pro Tempore under the leadership of Florida House Speaker Paul Renner.

A High Springs native, and a Santa Fe High School graduate, Clemons is a first-generation college student, earning his Associate’s Degree from Florida Gateway College and his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Florida. Clemons and his wife, Jane, live in Newberry and have four children and three grandsons.

Clemons spent much of his early career in private business as a Chartered Financial Consultant. He was elected to the Alachua County Commission from 1996-2000. And in 2001, he was appointed by President George W. Bush as the State Director of USDA Rural Development overseeing a $2 billion portfolio with operations in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the coming weeks, SFC will conduct a search for Clemons’ successor, utilizing the services of the consulting firm AGB Search, the same firm that assisted in the search that led to the hiring of President Broadie and more recently, Provost Nate Southerland.

In a statement, the College wrote, “the Vice President for Advancement and Chief Philanthropy Officer will be responsible for executing a strategic vision that establishes and implements an annual growth strategy which encompasses major and planned gifts, annual giving, sponsorships, special events, and donor engagement. Additionally, they will cultivate key donors and prospects, while developing a robust alumni donor base.”

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High Springs ‒ The 47th Annual Pioneer Days festival in High Springs kicked off with an on-again off-again soggy start on Saturday, but mother nature smiled upon the event, delivering clear skies and sunshine for its second day, much to the delight of organizers and attendees alike.

This past weekend, April 27 and 28, the charmingly vibrant town of High Springs turned back the clock to its rough and tumble beginnings as a railroad and mining hub with the much-anticipated Pioneer Days festival. Hosted by the High Springs Chamber of Commerce, the 47th annual celebration offered festivalgoers a nostalgic journey into the life and times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, downtown High Springs near the sinkhole, museum, and police station became a lively hub of activity. People were greeted with an array of craft vendors showcasing their handmade wares, tempting food vendors offering a variety of culinary delights, and a kid’s corner complete with pony rides. Attendees were also treated to music that echoed through the streets, while activities harkened back to simpler times.

One of the perpetual highlights of the festival was the reenactment of a wild west cowboy gunfight, where lawmen clashed with bank robbers in thrilling shows that captivated audiences throughout the weekend. These performances not only entertained but also provided a glimpse into the lawless frontier days that shaped the town's history.

Over the years, Pioneer Days has become a tradition in High Springs, drawing visitors not only from High Springs, but from surrounding communities as well to experience its charm and rich heritage. For those who may have missed out on this year's festivities, fear not. Pioneer Days will return next year, promising another opportunity to experience the magic and charm of High Springs' rough and tumble beginnings.

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