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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ On Monday, Aug. 30, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that the Florida Department of Education (DOE) withheld monthly school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education.

Corcoran is making good on a threat targeting local school boards that required students to wear masks in direct violation of Governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order against mask mandates. The is in despite of Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper issuing a ruling that stops the Florida Department of Education from leveling sanctions on school districts that require face coverings.

In Alachua County, members make about $40,000 a year and in Broward County about $46,000. The money will be withheld on a monthly basis until the school systems come into compliance, amounting to a reduction of $13,429 per month for the Alachua County School System.

The state does not pay salaries of local officials and cannot withhold the salaries directly. Corcoran previously said that he may recommend withholding funds “in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”

On Monday, his department said that the counties had been instructed to cut school board compensation and nothing else despite that fact that the DOE is removing the funds from the general budget. While restricting the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) budget, the state will cover expenses for students that transfer to schools in neighboring counties or to private and charter schools that have no mask mandate.

SBAC has seen a continual reduction in state funding for the past decade including a 50-percent reduction in facilities money equaling a loss of $168 million to county schools. Many COVID-19 expenses for readjusting the teaching systems, sanitizing classrooms and buses and other changes and purchases required were absorbed in large part by the school districts, further strapping their budgets. The state did reimburse for digital distance learning equipment.

On issuing the order Monday evening, Corcoran said the department would fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children. “They know what is best for their children.”

The CDC and most medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have stated that mask mandates help control the infection rate. Corcoran also did not address whether the rights of the parents who want masking were considered as well in the Parents Bill of Rights.

The Delta variant has proven to be much more infectious with more serious illness than previous versions and infects younger age groups more. Currently Florida has a bigger surge than the peak rate last year. As of Aug. 28, there were 865,406 active cases in Florida. The state recorded more than 31,700 new COVID-19 cases in Floridians age 19 and younger last week. There were also two additional deaths of Floridians under the age of 16 reported.

Daily data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows there are currently 224 children in hospitals in Florida as of Monday, the highest reported number in more than a year. According to the data, there were only 20 children admitted to hospitals across the state on July 1. On Aug. 1, that number increased to 103 cases and as of Aug. 30.

Dr. Raul Pino with the Department of Health in Orange County says children make up the largest group of new cases, with 19 percent of all new cases in children ages 5-14, adding that this is the age group where most are not eligible to be vaccinated.

In the Alachua County School System there are currently 569 student cases with 412 of these in the last 14 days and 141 staff cases. In addition, 1,761 students and 48 staff are in quarantine totaling 2,330 students who cannot attend school. While these numbers are alarming, Alachua County, with a mask mandate for both the school system, government and businesses, has the second lowest positivity rate in the state at 15.8 percent. Neighboring Columbia County, which has no mask mandate, has a 30.8 percent positivity rate.

Due to the surge, the SBAC, along with 10 other school districts, are pursuing legal measures against the mandate. In response to Corcoran's restriction of funds, Alachua School Superintendent Carlee Simon released a statement on Tuesday regarding the decision of the SBAC to continue the mask mandate.

Simon said, “I'm very troubled by the state's action...We have already begun working with our colleagues in other districts to take legal action. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure that Florida's districts have the right to act in the best interests of those they serve.”

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ALACHUA ‒ After having served as the City of Alachua’s Assistant City Manager and Communications and Executive Project Manager, on Aug. 6, 2021, Mike DaRoza was appointed City Manager. DaRoza wasn't expecting or seeking the job, but stepped in when Kamal Latham, who the Commission had earlier appointed to replace outgoing manager Adam Boukari, withdrew.

The Commission appointed DaRoza as Interim City Manager for a year. As Assistant City Manager and Communications and Executive Project Manager , DaRoza understood not only the requirements of the position but also the inner workings of the City’s departments as well as public relations.

Born in Fort Lauderdale, DaRoza moved to the Alachua area at the age of eight and has been involved in the community for 46 years. “Alachua is virtually my home. I went to high school at Santa Fe and my first job as a teen was at Hitchcock’s. I met my wife here and we raised our kids here.” For the last 20 years DaRoza has served as announcer for the Santa Fe Raiders Varsity Boys Basketball Team. “I have moved to other places but always returned home,” DaRoza said.

He has spent the majority of his life in business and communications. “In 1990 I took a job at Jack Busby's Design Cabinets and Furniture.” DaRoza started off sweeping floors and sanding doors and never expected to stay long. In the beginning it was just a paycheck to support the family. He wound up staying with the company for nearly 27 years doing virtually every job there except accountant and receptionist.

He worked his way up in the expanding business, eventually managing over 100 people in the organization. “Working there gave me skills in management, production, administering employees and finding methods to efficiently produce results. All of which were important in my job as Assistant City Manager and the current position,” DaRoza said.

While still working at Busby's, DaRoza began radio announcing for the high school’s varsity football team and found he had a talent for communicating and engaging people’s interest. As a side job he began writing for the High Springs Herald, eventually moving over to the then Alachua Today newspaper, covering both news and sports. “The job gave me new skills, improving my communication abilities and interviewing, as well as aspects of design, graphics, layout and web design,” DaRoza said. “It also gave me an understanding of the news media, which assisted me in communications with the City.”

“All of these skills have come in handy for the City Manager position. The job is fast paced and versatile with ever-changing priorities. When we were suddenly looking for a replacement for Adam [Boukari] the priority was to make a smooth transition so that everything kept running as efficiently as possible,” said DaRoza. “My position as Assistant City Manager gave me a good understanding of how each of the departments worked and what their needs were to do their job. We have a great staff here that provides excellent service to the community, which is our number-one priority,” DaRoza said.

DaRoza says the Commission has made it clear to staff the importance of education and the performance of our community schools. “Any thriving community depends on a strong educational network. Not only is it important for the future success of the children, but it also supports economic development and the growth of the community.” He said the quality of the schools is often the first question prospective residents ask before moving to an area. “We consider ourselves a GED to Ph.D. community. While we have a lot of growth in the science and bio tech industry in areas like Progress Park and Tech City, we also have a lot of job opportunities in our retail, industrial and distribution centers like Wal-Mart, Sysco and Dollar General.”

Growth in a small town can overwhelm infrastructure if not planned ahead, creating urban sprawl that taxes City services. DaRoza is confident that the City is in strong position regarding growth and infrastructure. “We are very fortunate that the City has thought ahead on future needs.”

Over the past three years, Alachua has constructed a second electrical substation, new water lines and wastewater facilities to cover the city limits and including expansion both in residential and commercial needs for the future. “Although I see no concerns about the already planned developments, and we have more than enough utilities capacity, we will review all development to make sure we are capable of handling growth with the services the City provides,” DaRoza said.

Another priority for the City has been development of Legacy Park and the cultural and recreational activities it provides. Having a place for people to play sports, exercise and enjoy entertainment while interacting as a community is important to the lifestyle the City strives to offer and has been a long-term goal. Under the City’s Legacy Park Master Plan, the City developed the multipurpose center in 2017 followed in 2019 with the addition of the amphitheater to provide concerts, shows and theater entertainment for residents.

However, some programming were put on hold due to the 2020 Covid pandemic. Now, the City is planning a variety of entertainment and sports events. However, DaRoza that the City is once again keeping a close eye on, and assessing daily, what is happening with the virus. “We currently have no plans to cancel any of the upcoming activities, but are keeping aware of the situation,” DaRoza said. “Checking news, medical data and caseloads have become part of my daily activities. While we want to return to a sense of normal life, our first concern is the safety of the community,” DaRoza said.

DaRoza has been in his new position for only three weeks, but is looking toward the future and making City services better for the community. “My first goal is to use my business management skills to help create an even more efficient organization to serve the community. In business, you are always on the margin, seeking profit through efficiency and reduced cost. You analyze the process as it is going on and take out the things that aren't adding value to the process to create a more lean and efficient work environment.

“While the government is not-for-profit, the same concept of a lean business process applies. The goal is to provide the best services for the community you can for the least cost and create a positive employee environment with high morale and pride,” said DaRoza. “This job is not about me; it is about the City team and the community. There is a phrase I have always lived by that says, ‘the higher one ascends in an organization, the more one should serve others.’”

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ In Newberry a 71-year-old Trenton man lost his life at 2:50 a.m., Monday, Aug. 16, when the sedan he was traveling in on State Road 26 and Northwest 202nd Street ran off the roadway. The driver was heading west on SR 26 when the crash occurred.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol report, the vehicle ran off the roadway to the right and into the north grassy shoulder of SR 26 where it struck a fence. The driver was transported to UF Health where he was pronounced deceased.

The crash is still under investigation by FHP.

A 65-year-old High Springs woman was killed at 3:42 p.m., Monday, Aug. 16, in Columbia County. The crash occurred on State Road 47 south of Chastain Glen. The driver was in the process of making a U-turn when her car was struck by a pickup truck traveling in the same direction.

The driver was pronounced dead at the scene. Her passenger, a 67-year-old High Springs man was transported to UF Health with serious injuries.

The driver of the pickup truck, a 66-year-old Fort White man, was transported to the Lake City Medical Center, also with serious injuries.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol report, the investigation is ongoing.

A 31-year-old Gainesville woman lost her life at 9 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 15, as she was traveling north on U.S. Highway 441 near Micanopy. The vehicle in which she was traveling exited the roadway traveling onto the east shoulder of U.S. 441 where it struck a fence. According to the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), the vehicle continued to travel northeast on the east shoulder, striking a tree and overturning onto its roof.

The driver was pronounced dead on the scene.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – The Alachua County Commission has authorized a new COVID Vaccination Incentive Program. Beginning Sept. 1, until Sept. 30, 2021 (participating CVS pharmacies will participate beginning September 3), Alachua County is giving a $25 gift card to those getting COVID-19 vaccinations. The gift cards will be available at the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County and other participating businesses. The incentive is available for each COVID-19 shot. Johnson & Johnson single shots will receive one $25 gift card, the Moderna and Pfizer shots will receive $25 for each shot, including booster shots. 
 “My fellow Commissioners and I are very excited that we are now at a 66% vaccination rate for citizens who are eligible to get the shot,” Commission Chair Ken Cornell said. “This incentive is just one more tool to help motivate folks to keep themselves, their families and our community safe.”
 These incentives are for new vaccinations and are distributed after the COVID-19 vaccines are administered. Those who have already been vaccinated are not eligible.
 Participating vaccine providers include:
 The Florida Department of Health in Alachua County 
224 SE 24th St, Gainesville, FL 32641
 
Hitchcock's Pharmacies
15560 NW US Hwy 441, Alachua, FL 32615
24220 W Newberry Rd, Newberry, FL 32669
 
West End Pharmacy
25340 W Newberry Rd, Newberry, Fl 32669
 
Wise's Pharmacy
708 SW 4th Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601
 
Winn Dixie Pharmacies
20303 N, US‐441, High Springs, FL 32643
300 SW 16th Ave, Gainesville, FL 32601
 
CVS Pharmacies ‐ Beginning September 3
901 N Main St, Gainesville, FL 32601
7430 SW Archer Rd, Gainesville, FL 32608
6025 US‐301, Hawthorne, FL 32640
4354 NW 23rd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32606
4145 NW 53rd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32653
3904 NW 13th St, Gainesville, FL 32609
3404 SW Archer Rd, Gainesville, FL 32608
2303 SW 75th St, Gainesville, FL 32607
19225 NW US Hwy 441, High Springs, FL 32643
1621 SW 13th St, Gainesville, FL 32608
15174 NW US Hwy 441, Alachua, FL 32615
1515 NW 13th St, Gainesville, FL 32601
14355 W Newberry Road, Gainesville, Fl 32669
 

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HIGH SPRINGSThe High Springs Police Department (HSPD) is on the hunt for the individual or individuals responsible for shooting into a vehicle. On Sunday, Aug. 15 at 8:40 p.m., a vehicle was struck by a bullet at 22900 Railroad Avenue.

HSPD responded to a delayed report that a vehicle was travelling on Railroad Avenue when an unknown person or persons shot at the victim’s vehicle. At the time of the investigation, the shooting incident appears random and there is no known connection between the victim and the perpetrator.

HSPD is asking that if anyone has information pertaining to this case, to contact them at 386-454-1415 or the Combined Communication Center at 352-955-1818.

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TALLAHASSEE – On Aug. 30, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced that the Florida Department of Education (DOE) has withheld the monthly school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education. DEO states that each district has implemented a mandatory face mask policy that violates parental rights by not allowing a parent or legal guardian to opt-out their child, as required by Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule 64DER21-12. The withholding of funds will continue monthly until each school board complies with state law and rule.

 “We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children. They know what is best for their children. What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” said Commissioner of Education Corcoran.

 On Aug. 20, 2021, the State Board of Education issued the Alachua and Broward County school districts with an Order demanding that they comply with state statute and rule; however, both districts refuse to comply. Each county is also prohibited from reducing any expenditures other than those related to compensation for school board members, and clearly states each district may not permit the reduction of funds to impact student services or teacher pay.

 DOE says there may be additional sanctions and take additional enforcement action to bring each school district into compliance with state law and rule.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ The City of High Springs is buying a popular local recreation area and its facilities. Commissioners approved the $600,000 acquisition of Canoe Outpost, which is located on the Santa Fe River during their Aug. 12 meeting. The business, currently owned by Jim and Sally Wood, offers ecotourism adventures along the river, ranging from canoeing and kayaking to overnight paddling and camping.

Anticipated upgrades to bathrooms, the pathway, the dock and signage are anticipated to cost $150,000 more bringing the all-in price tag to $750,000.

Funds for the purchase are coming from a number of different sources. A $175,000 payment is coming from Alachua County Trust, $150,000 from Wild Spaces Public Places funds and approximately $425,000 will be financed from 5 – 10 years by PFM Financial Group, which the City hopes will be paid by potential grant opportunities and future Wild Spaces Public Places funds.

Potential funding sources discussed included Florida Communities Trust, which may help with the acquisition itself. State funds through the Florida Forever Program may be available during the 2022 or 2023 fiscal years. If available, those funds may be available at a one-to-one match based on the sale price.

The Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP) is another competitive program that provides grants for acquisition or development of land for public outdoor recreation. Although the grants are capped at $50,000, grant funds may be useful to help pay for the improvements needed at the Canoe Outpost. The Federal Cares Act has grant funding for tourism and recreation development at $240 million, which is available to help boost the tourism industry in Florida that has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Requests for Proposals for someone to manage the facility are anticipated to be out prior to the final closing date of Oct. 29, 2021. High Sprigs City Attorney Scott Walker said it is likely that the agreement will be closed upon prior to that date depending on the financing. However, one thing that was made clear was that there is no plan to close the facility during the transition. Owner Jim Woods will also be on hand to advise the new management as soon as the property is closed upon and the transition takes place.

In other business, Commissioners unanimously approved awarding a bid to construct a 12-inch water well to a local company, SGS Contracting Services, Inc., for $667,700. The City received one bid for this project, but Assistant City Manager Bruce Gillingham said the company met all of the criteria for approval according to the City’s engineers.

Gillingham estimates it will take five months to obtain the wellhead and eight months to a year to complete the project based on the availability of the parts. With the approval of this bid, Gillingham hopes to have the financing in place by the next meeting. Between the financing and the water rates, he anticipates that will cover the cost of the project.

The High Springs Community School will be doubling the number of its Student Resource Officers now that the school has exceeded 1,000 students. High Springs Police Chief Antoine Sheppard said the school will now require two officers because of the increase in student admissions. An agreement with the School Board to pay $120,000 as its share of funding for the 2021-22 school year was unanimously approved by Commissioners which will fund the two officers. Sheppard said he had one officer from Gainesville and one from south Florida, that he was planning to put into that school.

Sheppard also presented an agreement with the school board to provide a School Resource Officer for Christian Academy. The agreement stipulates $46,071 as its share of funding for the 2021-22 school year. Commissioners unanimously approved this agreement as well.

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