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Four seek school leadership role

Gainesville board will get at least 1 new member

POSTED: October 17, 2009 11:59 p.m.
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Delores Diaz

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The kids. That’s the main reason most candidates cite for wanting to serve on the Gainesville City Board of Education.

In the past year, the board has made hard decisions on a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, a bizarre bus fire and teacher pay cuts. Ahead lie more uncertainties and the futures of thousands of children.

What is certain is that there will be a new face on the board in 2010.

Four candidates seek two seats on the board. Early voting is in full swing; Election Day is Nov. 3.

Incumbent David Syfan and challenger Kellie Weeks seek the Ward 1 seat. Political newcomers Delores Diaz and Richard Lacey seek the Ward 4 seat.

Former Ward 4 candidate and longtime school board member Kelvin Simmons was ruled ineligible to seek re-election due to a new state anti-nepotism law.

A united board overcame many challenges last school year in a period of financial turmoil, Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said.

The board hopes to eliminate its $780,000 deficit by June 30, the end of this fiscal year. Restoring teacher salaries and replacing about $3.1 million worth of school building roofs will be the next hurdles, all the while budgeting around additional state-ordered furlough days and anticipated state budget cuts to education.

“We’ve got the challenges of keeping the programs and the opportunities intact in light of our budget restraints,” Dyer said. “We’ve got to stay on course with reducing and coming out of our deficit and keeping our eye on student achievement and not getting sidetracked with the financial issues that everyone’s facing.”

A mix of businesspeople, educators and an attorney — all of whom have or have had children or grandchildren in Gainesville schools — are jockeying for the chance to lead the school system for the next four years.

The board has yet to mirror the system’s large Latino enrollment. Members have reached out to religious leaders in the Latino community to establish more communication and spur more parental involvement in the schools.

Syfan said he suspects economic and citizenship issues may be holding back first-generation Latino immigrants from seeking election to the school board.

“I would think that with the second generation, both on school board and city council and county commissioners and state representatives, that you’ll probably see a greater participation of Hispanic residents and it will be a much more diverse community,” he said.

Diaz, a longtime educator, is not Latino by birth but married into a family with Cuban heritage.

“I think I can serve as a liaison between the Hispanic community and the board,” she said. “Even though I’m not personally Hispanic, I do consider myself to be because of my husband.”

Lacey, Diaz’s opponent, said his career in pharmaceutical marketing will bring business and technological expertise to the board. He also has been a math educator for several years in Gainesville and Gwinnett County schools.

“I have the teaching experience to be a resource there. I have the business experience to be a resource there. I have the technology experience to be a resource there,” he said of serving on the board.

Syfan, an attorney who has served on the board since 2002, is the only candidate with political experience. He acknowledges the roof replacements needed at five different school buildings is one of the most pressing, but manageable, issues at hand.

“That’s an easier problem to solve over time than it is to increase the graduation rate from 78 percent to 98 percent. That’s a trickier issue,” he said.

Weeks, who owns a small business in the city, said she decided to run because she felt she isn’t being heard by current board members. She said she believes parents want turnover on the board.

“If I didn’t do it, who was going to do it?” she said of running. “An incumbent shouldn’t just stay in forever. I think people need to step up and take their chances and challenge an incumbent when they don’t like how things are run. If you sit back and just complain, then you’re not doing any good.”



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