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Back To School: Okaloosa County

Classes resume this week and next in public schools across Florida’s western Panhandle, with the usual challenges that a new school year brings the districts. In the first of our three-part series “Back to School,” Dave Dunwoody spoke with Okaloosa County Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.

It’s a busy start to the new term. The biggest challenges, says Jackson, are getting rid of 160 portable classrooms on campuses; and 770 more students than in 2016-17 and growing at the rate of 100 per day. That brings the district’s total student population to more than 31,000.  

For Jackson, a former teacher, the start of a new school year on August 10 is a new beginning, to apply lessons learned from the previous term, in planning for 2017-18.

“In our schools this last year we definitely saw some excellent numbers, that let us know our plan was a good one, but not perfect,” she said. “So we’ve taken that data, and we’ve changed some things around to focus on areas that we know we can do much better.”

The crown jewel in the plan is the K-2 reading program. In-house testing in those grades revealed some gaps. That’s leading to a more aggressive approach, including the purchase of a new teaching program.

“Our teachers are very excited about it; we brought them in over the summer,” Jackson said. “They like it. It is a new way of reaching the very young and helping them become even better readers than they are.”

But, amid the molasses of a new school year, there’s the sulfur of financial reality. After a special session, the Legislature in June finally passed a budget for the 67 K-12 public school districts. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, at a special-needs school in Orlando.

Credit Okaloosa Co. School District
Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.

“[House Bill 7069] provides nearly $419 million to Florida’s K-12 education system,” said the Governor. “So that Florida students have the opportunity to receive a great education.”

“House Bill 7069 is wrong,” counters Jackson. “We begged the Governor not to sign it. I’ve made that very clear to all of our representatives.”

At the House’s behest, local property taxes that are sent to the state to help fund education will be held flat once again. Among other things, the new budget provides a $100  increase in per-student school funding – but Jackson says that’s only on paper.

“In the budget written before the governor put that in there, we were going to be getting a negative $27 per student,” said Jackson. “When the governor gave us the hundred dollars more, we had to first apply that money to the negative.”

That whittled down the extra money to about $73 per student in Okaloosa. Jackson says that in turn led to a mandatory ten percent budget cut per department -- totaling $7.7 million. 

“Eight positions at the district level [were cut],” Jackson said. “All out-of-county travel; eliminated all of the testing coordinators in the schools.  We eliminated 12 reading positions in the high schools.”

Other cuts involve three math coaches; reducing all guidance and administrative summer hours, and every school got cuts in overhead -- including any reserves in their maintenance funds.

At last count, at least 16 county school districts have filed, or are planning to file, lawsuits against HB-7069, for what they claim to be the misdirection of federal Title-I monies earmarked for schools for students’ families who are at or below the federal poverty line.

Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson was asked if Okaloosa would be among them.

“Our legal staff is working on that right now,” said Jackson. “That will be a [School] Board decision.”

On the plus side, the Okaloosa County School District has developed a new teaching and counseling program called “Trauma.” It monitors students who are struggling to check for any problems at home or elsewhere outside the schools.