DeSantis appoints former GOP chair to Alachua school board amid mask controversy

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier) (Marta Lavandier, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced the appointment of the former chair of the Alachua Republican Party to fill a vacant seat on the Alachua County School Board.

The appointment of Mildred Russell comes as the board finds itself in the middle of a battle with the state over a mask mandate in the school district.

DeSantis created a vacancy on the school board when he removed Diyonne McGraw from office in June. McGraw was removed after a lawsuit claimed she lives in District 4 but was elected to a District 2 seat, though McGraw contested her removal, saying that DeSantis “improperly used his executive power” by issuing the order vacating her seat, the Gainesville Sun reported.

In the executive order, DeSantis wrote “due to Diyonne McGraw’s failure to maintain the residence required of her by law a vacancy exists on the Alachua County School Board, District 2, which I shall fill in compliance with the law.”

Russell joins a school board that received national attention in recent weeks after it went against an executive order from DeSantis that bans mask mandates in school.

Alachua put in place a two-week mask mandate for students beginning Aug. 10, but students could opt out with a doctor’s note. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said that violates a statewide order to let students opt out without requiring any medical recommendations, referrals or permissions.

The Florida State Board of Education on Tuesday voted unanimously to punish Broward and Alachua counties for mandating masks in schools, which could include the removal of officers and withholding of salaries. But a few hours later, the four-member school board still voted to extend the district’s mandate eight more weeks.

“Forcing young kids to wear masks all day, these kindergarteners having the government to force that, that’s not defying me, that’s defying the state of Florida’s laws,” DeSantis said during a Wednesday news conference. “I know that there’s a lot of members of the legislature who say wait a minute, you’re just above the law? You think you can do whatever you want? That’s not the way it is.”

Russell, who lives in Gainesville, led the GOP in the county for two years in the early 2000s. She also served as a co-chair of the George Bush-Dick Cheney 2004 campaign for Alachua County, according to an online biography.

She and her husband Rusty started Miracle Life Ministries, as well as churches in Athens, Georgia, and Oxford, England, according to the governor’s office.

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Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.