Alachua County schools chief plans to shake up administration

The Gainesville Sun | by Gershon Harrell | May 25, 2021

Five months into her role as superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, Carlee Simon has big changes in mind. 

She is moving to remake the system’s central administration, adding some positions and amending others. 

With board members Gunnar Paulson and Robert Hyatt voting no, the school board last week approved the sweeping changes — in theory, at least — in a 3-2 vote.

While it is clear the changes may well mean more money spent on administrators’ salaries, the changes were approved with a disclaimer that they “might or might not” change the district’s bottom line.

Documents included in her presentation to the board outlined changes that could mean as much as $2.7 million more in administrative salaries — though each entry noted if a current employee wins the job, the cost to taxpayers would be much lower.

Candidates for the new vacant jobs will be interviewed, even if they already work for the district, Simon said.

Simon presented some of her proposed job descriptions to the board last week. She will present a more detailed explanation and overview of the reorganization at the June workshop. 

“I will say that it aligns with things that I have shared as far as the focus on our academic achievement, as well as mental health support and very much focusing on equity for all students,” Simon said.

Simon was hired as the district’s interim superintendent in December and named to the permanent position in March.

Hyatt and Paulson called for a workshop before the board gives final approval to any such changes, saying the district employees deserve a change to weigh in before the school system’s administration is shaken up. 

“That would give a chance for employees to have a say, obviously not a deciding say,” Hyatt said. “But the fact that they can be listened to as we do this, so I don’t say this in a pejorative way toward the proposed plan, I say it as I think our employees deserve a little more transparency.” 

Changes impacting the district 

There is turmoil in the school district, said Carmen Ward, president of the Alachua County Education Association, which represents the school system’s roughly 3500 teachers.

“Changes create a lot of chaos,” Ward said. 

Ward said the plan wasn’t presented in transparent fashion to employees or students’ parents.

“Every stakeholder has a right to know what’s happening in the public school system,” Ward said. 

She said she hopes the workshop will bring more answers.

Among the changes Simon is proposing:

*Adding a slew of new positions, such as a “police chief” position. A number of others will report to that chief including a coordinator of emergency management and a supervisor of cyber security.

*A number of assistant superintendent positions will be removed, replaced mostly by administrators with “director” and “chief” titles.

*Chief of Equity, Inclusion and Community Engagement and Director of Student Wellness and professional services will also be added. (Valerie Freeman served as the district’s equity director before she became principal of Fearnside Family Services Center.)

Simon said she plans to remake the administration from the ground up. Candidates for vacant jobs will be interviewed, even if they already work for the district.

Simon said re-interviewing candidates — even those who already serve in high-ranking jobs — is beneficial for two reasons.   

The first to avoid internal conflicts and her second reasoning was people who are chosen to fill a position will have “the additional reliability and validity of the decision.” 

Some roles have been expanded in new plan

In the organizational chart Simon will present next month, she said some of the administrative roles have been expanded because the district will be receiving Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funding expected to bring as much as $100 million to the district.

“I think it’s incredibly important for us to make sure that we have the right people in place to oversee this money,” she said. 

According to the Florida Department of Education, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) was signed into law, the act included $770.2 million in ESSER funding for Florida schools. 

Spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said this federal funding was provided to help students recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The superintendent’s reorganization is aimed at supporting students with their academics, it’s aimed at promoting equity, aimed at ensuring students have mental health services,” Johnson said.

Simon said when she became interim superintendent she noticed that there were people who had positions that were “consolidations of other positions,” that left some administrators stretched too thin. 

“I think what we need to make sure is that people have an ability to focus on the task at hand, and most specifically, this aligns with the $100 million associated with ESSER,” she said.  “It is paramount that we spend this money in the most appropriate responsible way, we have so much work to do and I want to make sure that everybody who’s doing the good work is focused and able to do it well.” 

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