Back to School: Escambia County

Aug 9, 2017

In the third and final installment of our “Back to School” series, we take a look at the Escambia County District.

With more than 40,000 students, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas oversees the largest district in the western Panhandle. And he adds there’s always a special enthusiasm at this time of year, just before the first class bell rings.

“Anytime you turn over a new leaf, you start a new calendar year or a new school year, [there’s] always excitement in the air,” said Thomas. “Our teachers have been in their classrooms the last few days, and they’re working away, trying to prepare for our students’ return on August 10.”

After beginning work with Florida’s new educational standards in 2016-17, Thomas says judging from some of the test results last year that teachers appear to be fairly comfortable with them heading into the new term. That will continue to be pushed, along with some new hands-on technology.

Malcolm Thomas, Escambia County School Superintendent.

“We will start the school year with every student in grade 3-12 will be issued their own personal Chromebook,” Thomas said. “That doesn’t mean we’re turning our classrooms over to computers, but it does put another tool in the teachers’ toolbox.”

Meeting in special session in early June, the Florida Legislature passed a $419 million budget for K-12 public schools. House Bill 7069 was pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“Between the $100 increase [per student] we did in the special session; between this piece of legislation we’re signing today, it is the greatest pro-family, pro-parent, pro-teacher session we’ve had maybe in the history of the state of Florida,” said Corcoran at the bill signing.

That spending plan has met with derision from a number of school superintendents, with some county school boards filing lawsuits. Thomas, for now, is urging a wait-and-see posture.

“It’s got good and bad,” Thomas says. “Some things in 7069 that I absolutely agree with, and there’s a lot in there that takes away local control; starts to slide money away from public schools to private entities. Those are the parts that I think most superintendents are going to speak out and object to.”

There is hope, by Thomas and some of his counterparts around the state, that the Legislature will return to Tallahassee next month and address some of the sticking points of HB 7069. That might bring a final decision on whether Escambia joins an existing lawsuit, or files its own.

No doubt the new budget will impact the spending plan for all 67 school districts. But those budgets are actually affected more by the number of students in a district. In Escambia’s case, there’s $400,000  in new revenue.

“But that was offset by retirement costs for our employees; that saw an increase of $700,000. Do the math,” said Thomas. “Then you couple that with tightening of federal dollars, our Title I budgets. We’re expecting one million dollars less than we got last year. And they’re not dollars we’re going to be able to make up.”

Later in the school year, the Escambia District will open two brand-new schools, Kingsville Elementary and Beulah Middle, in the western part of the county to serve a growing population in the area surrounding Navy Federal Credit Union.

“We expect in the spring of 2018 both schools will be completed,” Thomas said. “You’ll hear a lot of talk this fall about the new attendance zones and the new maps. We will have both schools open to begin [classes] one year from now, in August of 2018.”

Teacher recruitment has gone well in the run up to August 10. It’s a balancing act, says Thomas, of both quantity and quality. But he adds that the pool of highly-qualified candidates remains thin. That’s where “second career” teachers step up to the plate.

“In today’s environment about half the people we hire will not be teacher-trained,” said Thomas. “They will have been those people who achieve a degree in some other area, tried it for a while and they want to come into education as a second career, or [after] a career where the other one never got off the ground.”

The game plan for 2017-18, says Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, is for a high, rigorous level of instruction that’s going to be challenging for the students. He asks for parents’ support, and has a message for the kids:

Embrace that.