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'In this for the kids': Remembering Duval County School Board member Cheryl Grymes

Grymes served on the board for 16 years. She died this week at 69 years old.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Cheryl Godwin Grymes, a 16-year Duval County School Board member who helped shape Jacksonville-area public education in four decades, died this week following struggles with Alzheimer's and Lewy Body dementia. She was 69.

Ms. Grymes represented Southside and Mandarin neighborhoods from 1992 to 2000 as Cheryl Donelan and returned to the School Board from 2012 to 2020 under her second husband’s surname, representing a district binding together Arlington and northeast Jacksonville.

“It was such a huge example to me and my sisters of what public service looks like,” recalled her daughter, Leah Donelan McDermott of Ocala, who was in middle school when her mother’s school board career began.

Not yet 40 and raising daughters as young as 2 when she first campaigned, Ms. Grymes was a former head of the Duval County Council of PTAs who brought different perspectives to a board where, before her election, five of the seven seats had been held by men, some with no children in the school system.

“I’m in this for the kids,” the self-described moderate said while seeking her second term in 1996, faulting a challenger for focusing too much on issues surrounding economic development.

She was part of board votes that approved years of school construction in high-growth neighborhoods and sought federal court recognition that a long-segregated school system had become “unitary,” a label the courts awarded in 1999.

Term limits required Ms. Grymes to leave the board by late 2000, but by January 2001 she became the executive director of the Alliance for World Class Education, an organization anchored by business executives aiming to strengthen local schools.

Hoping to apply experiences from the business world, the organization pursued mentorships between principals and business CEOs while focusing on improving non-classroom fields like payroll systems and supporting the EDDY awards, the school system’s yearly teacher-of-the-year ceremonies.

The organization was replaced by 2009 by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, with Ms. Grymes working on the transition, and in 2010 she became vice president of fund development for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Northeast Florida, a nonprofit run by her second husband, the late Warren Grymes Jr.

Ms. Grymes lost a race for City Council to future state lawmaker Clay Yarborough in 2007, but the result worked out by leaving her free to return to the School Board in 2012, member Warren Jones reflected during a board meeting shortly after her death Monday.

“Her calling was the schools,” said Jones, who served with her when the board embraced a proposal for voters to decide on a half-penny sales tax increase to fund the lion’s share of a $1.9 billion initiative for repairs and upgrades to the school system’s deteriorating buildings.

Facing City Council resistance to putting the question on the ballot, Ms. Grymes joined all but one of the colleagues in voting in 2019 to enlist outside attorneys for a legal contest to get the question on the ballot.

“It’s time for us to put our big pants on,” Ms. Grymes told the board, which succeeded the following year in getting a vote on a modified tax plan that voters approved two-to-one.  

“She was an amazing woman. I am just so grateful for her being in my life,” School Board Chair Kelly Coker, who took the seat Ms. Grymes vacated, told board members this week. “…I don’t think there will be another member who hit the heights that she did.”

In addition to Leah Donelan McDermott, Ms. Grymes is survived by daughters Jessica Graber of St. Augustine, Stephanie Donelan of Jacksonville and Rachel Goldstein of Orlando; stepsons James Grymes of West Point, N.Y. and Warren Grymes III of Ponte Vedra Beach; eight grandchildren; and her first husband, Stephen Donelan, with whom she had reconciled.

Services for Ms. Grymes will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Riverside North, an event venue at 2711 Edison Ave. in Jacksonville.

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