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Meet The Candidates: Okaloosa County Superintendent Race

In Okaloosa County, incumbent Marcus Chambers and former state Rep. Ray Sansom are running in the superintendent’s race. Since both are Republicans, the winner will be decided in the Aug. 18 primary.

Both have a background working with the Okaloosa County School District. 

Chambers began his career in education 23 years ago as an English teacher and coach. He has been a principal at the elementary, middle, and high school level. He was assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction before he was appointed superintendent last year after the controversial departure Mary Beth Jackson. 

“I’m very passionate about the school district and proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish, working with our teachers, working with our students, working with families,” said Chambers. “Not only do we have a very good school district, I think we have one of the best school districts in Florida and that’s because of the people we have working here.” 

Sansom served on the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners and was working for the district as director of community affairs before he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2002. In 2009, the former House speaker was charged with misappropriating funds. The charges were later dropped and his legal fees were paid by the state. The charge was a talking point for Chambers during candidate forums, but Sansom said his innocence was proven when he went to court. 

“I proved my innocence and went to trial,” he said. “The judge told prosecutors to drop everything, but I laid it out there and told the truth.” 

The School District isn’t without scandal. Last year, superintendent Mary Beth Jackson was removed from office amid allegations of wrongdoing after an investigation of ongoing abuse of an autistic child at the hands of his pre-K teacher. 

Building trust back into the district will be a task for whomever wins the race. Sansom criticizes the Jackson administration for being unaware of the abuse. He says the district needs a “culture change” and being open and honest with the public is one way to earn back trust. 

“That’s why citizens are ready for a change. They want someone who will be honest with them, tell them what’s happening — be upfront,” he said. “Leadership is not about excuses. Leadership is assuming responsibility, being held accountable and being transparent about it.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
Ray Sansom waves his sign in front of AJ's on the Bayou in Fort Walton Beach.

As interim and appointed superintendent, Chambers says he’s addressing the trust issue by getting out into the community talking to parents in the north and south-end of the county, as well as establishing a parent advisory group that meets quarterly. 

“We’re about 18 months in and I think we’ve done a very good job of re-establishing that trust in the community, but I know there’s still work we need to do, but I’m very willing to continue that communication and partnerships,” he said. 

Chambers has also had to build trust during the pandemic as the district prepares to reopen schools this month. 

Chambers said the district has purchased masks for all students and employees as well as desk barriers and 10,000 face shields. They’ve also installed what Chambers called a “rapid response team” to assist with cleaning if a case is reported. 

“And we’re hiring three nurses that will serve as contact-tracing teams who will work directly with the Health Department so if we do have a case — or when we do have a case — that we can do contact tracing,” he added. “This pandemic is real in terms of fears folks have and we want to make sure we do a good job communicating and working with our parents and employees.”

Sansom agrees with reopening schools with safety precautions, he also believes that each school in the district should be prepared with a robust distance-learning program on the chance that schools could close again. 

“Our current administration that I’m running against missed a golden opportunity to train teachers, parents and students better on distance learning over the summer and none of that happened, so I would’ve done that completely different,” he said. “We need to make sure when school does open that there’s a good distance-learning program put together so it’s no different than being in the classroom if they’re at home learning.”

And while the pandemic is an ongoing issue, Sansom and Chambers have long-term goals for the district beyond getting schools opened. 

For Sansom, it’s about tackling the state budget. With his background as the budget chairman in the state Legislature, he said he’s equipped to make sure Okaloosa is well-funded. 

“The pandemic closed down the economy for the most part in Florida for a while and in most parts like Orlando and Miami — the big parts that generate a lot of revenue,” he said. “Whenever I get elected, I will immediately start working on the legislature, the people I know well, a legislature I know well, to make sure the school district is not affected.”  

Chambers said he recognizes three critical needs in Okaloosa County, which include career and technical education, and strengthening exceptional student education (ESE) programs, and infrastructure improvements. 

Credit Chambers for Superintendent
Superintendent Marcus Chambers brings yard signs to supporters.

“We have to really address our aging infrastructure here in Okaloosa County,” he said.  “61% of our school buildings are 50 years of age or older, and 75% of then 44 or older. We have the oldest bus fleet.” 

The district is also met with growing pains with about a 1.5% increase over the last five years which puts a strain on already-packed schools. As for workforce training, Chambers said he wants to continue to expand programs, such as carpentry, into more schools. Another program focuses on coding. 

“What we want to do is create a community of coding — learning coding from elementary students all the way to high school and hopefully that will take some students into the workforce. Nowadays, we need to prepare kids for college, workforce or military.” 

Early voting in Okaloosa is going on now. For more information on voting, visit Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.