FORT WALTON BEACH — With primary elections to be held Aug. 28, the seven candidates for Okaloosa County School Board are focused on the various challenges they will face if elected.
While three of the five districts (1, 3 and 5) are on the ballot, only one incumbent — District 1's Dr. Lamar White — is running for reelection.
Candidates said infrastructure and funding are priorities, but there is another issue that they consider crucial: improving public perception of the board.
“I think helping to restore trust from the voters and the citizens in the process of what the board does with the district coming after the last year is the most important thing,” said Linda Evanchyk, who is running for a District 3 seat. “To let the people know that the board has put into place some measure to make sure that we don’t have anymore surprises in what’s going on.”
Evanchyk said when talking to constituents, she gets the sense that the public doesn’t trust the board and the district to make the right decisions right now. And she’s not the only one.
“When I walk around neighborhoods and when I talk to people … there’s one overriding concern that our people have,” said Bran McAllister, running in District 5. “They feel as though there’s been somewhat of a decline in their confidence in the leadership of the school system.”
District 3 candidate Alby Clendennin has had the same experience. Being a recent graduate from an Okaloosa County high school, Clendennin says he understands the negative perception people both within and outside the school system have after the recent controversies around the district and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.
“Just about every single person I’ve talked to outside of the school system has such a negative viewpoint of how our district is currently,” Clendennin said. “So for the next school board going in, shall I be a part of it, I will be fully focused on fixing our public perception and involving the public as much as I can.”
District 3 candidate Joe Slusser wants the public to understand the school board and the district are separate entities with separate duties.
“There’s a lot of distrust and suspicion about things, and I would love for that to be cleared up. We have to have transparency,” Slusser said. “I call it the three Cs. We have to have consistency, we have to have communication and we have to have clarity. I think that’s one of the things the school board is asking for the district to do.”
Diane Kelley, a candidate in District 5, says there are two challenges that go hand-in-hand — regaining public trust so they board will be able to receive more money for issues like safety.
“Safety is always our first priority for our students. I am very pleased that we have had a new funding stream from the (Florida Department of Education) for what they’re calling ‘hardening of schools,’” Kelley said, referencing the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, part of Senate Bill 7026. “That has given us some funding which will help us take care of some of our safety needs … but we’ll still need to incur some of those costs.”
Kelley says part of acquiring more funding for safety is restoring public trust so the district can be reconsidered to be part of the sales tax initiative.
The responsibility of the school board is to develop and adopt policy based upon the recommendation of the superintendent. The board is responsible for approval and adoption of an annual budget that provides the basis for the buildings, furnishings, staff, materials and equipment needed to carry out all educational programs, according to the district’s website.
With aging infrastructure and the growth of the student population in recent years, handling district funds in an efficient manner is at the top of many candidates list of priorities.
Last year, the school system added 1,000 more students. This year, another enrollment increase is expected. The district already has more than 100 portable classrooms dispersed throughout the school district, with some schools having 13 or more portables, according to District 1 incumbent White.
“Our facilities are antiquated,” White said. “Funding is required to create the additional classrooms that additional students need. And more students impact our student transportation services in terms of additional school bus routes, additional school buses and additional school bus drivers. There are other issues, but in my mind ... funding and associated costs from student growth looms as the largest issue.”
Lacking infrastructure is a concern Slusser also plans to address if elected.
“Our infrastructure is a mess. We have so many old schools and schools in disrepair,” Slusser said. “It’s not that the staff isn’t doing a good job, you can only do what you can do with what you have. We have been so short on funds.”
Evanchyk says the school board will always face these kinds of issues, but it’s important to look at the big picture and anticipate any future problems that may occur.
“Instead of just reacting to situations brought in front of the board, I would like to be — as much as I can within the law — more proactive,” Evanchyk said. “To anticipate some upcoming situations so that we can be a little more prepared to act upon them instead of just reacting to what has to happen.”
District 1 candidate Willie Harmon did not respond to calls or emails in time for this writing.