For the first time in 12 years, voters heading to the polls in the Santa Rosa County will be choosing a new Superintendent of Schools.
Vying to replace retiring incumbent, Tim Wyrosdick, are Dr. Karen Barber, David Gunter, and Michael Alan Thorpe. The candidates are all Republicans, who serve in the current administration, making them well-versed in issues facing the district.
Barber, who’s from a military family, has 33 years of experience from pre-k through college, with 23 years as an educator in Santa Rosa. She’s spent the last 11 years as Director of Federal Programs.
“I’ve written grants for over $80 million of resources and support, for students and teachers in every school,” said Barber, detailing some of her accomplishments on WSRE TV’s Rally 2020 program.
“I’ve developed programs for reading in all of our elementary schools, a housing program for homeless families, a support program for at-risk youth and our district-wide STEM education program that inspires teachers and students to think critically and work collaboratively.”
“I was the first web design teacher in the county. I was the first teacher in the county to develop an online gradebook,” declared Thorpe, who is director of instructional technology and professional development for the Santa Rosa School District.
He outlined many other firsts recorded during his 27 years of experience - all in Santa Rosa - as a teacher, principal and district administrator.
“I was the first principal in the county to start an aviation academy and an advanced manufacturing academy,” Thorpe continued. “I’ve led our district’s professional development, which is now nationally recognized. I’m the only principal in the history of the state of Florida that ever moved a school from a level D to a level A in one school year.”
Also seeking to become Santa Rosa Superintendent is David Gunter, who currently serves as director of labor relations and compliance for the district. Gunter touts the combination of his 20 years in education with his business background.
“Having successfully earned both graduate and undergraduate degrees from colleges of business at major universities, along with running a successful business prior to entering education, I possess the unique skillset to ensure taxpayers will see business-minded accountability and a positive return on their investment in Santa Rosa County schools.”
On the Rally program, the candidates were asked about the most important issues facing the district. Each placed priority on providing a learning environment that’s safe from COVID-19, dealing with the budgetary fallout (from coronavirus) and managing the rapid growth of the district, which now has about 30 thousand students and counting.
Another question from the League of Women Voters centered on how the candidates plan to maintain quality education for students in the face of today’s challenges.
According to Gunter, it will be important to continue the good work already underway in the high-performing district.
“We need to focus on the STEAM initiative that’s been put in place; the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mat,” he said. “But, we also need to look at the future and when I say look to the future, we need to look at those students who aren’t going to college and we need to make sure that’s not going to college and it’s okay that we realize that as a community. I want to see every student graduate with a diploma in one hand and an industry certification in the other, which will give them the opportunity to be successful.”
For Thorpe, maintaining quality education now and in the future, hinges on hiring quality teachers in combination with initiatives, such as the one he developed, to mentor them.
“The mentoring program increased our retention rate from 79% to 95%, so we must ensure quality teachers in that classroom,” Thorpe stated. Secondly, we need to make sure we have a robust technology program for students across the entire school district. For students to be ready for the world of work in the future, they must experience technology at a very deep level while in our school system.”
Barber also noted the importance of technology in education, moving forward.
“I’m responsible for the District’s CARES Act application; $4 million and we’re utilizing that for IPads, laptops, high quality digital distance curriculum,” she said. “We’re training our teachers and our students to be adept and skilled at digital learning, whether in a brick and mortar, or from a distance.”
In addition to the Rally program, the Superintendent candidates recently participated the inaugural Santa Rosa County Debate. The event was held July 25 at Ye Olde Brothers Brewery in Navarre, in conjunction with Navarre Press.
“Teacher salaries in Santa Rosa County are traditionally lower in neighboring counties,” begins the debate moderator, with a question about how the candidates plan to recruit the brightest and best teachers, when neighboring districts offer higher wages.
Barber noted that the district is receiving almost $5 million to increase teacher pay, with 80% going to those making less than $47,500.
“To make $47,500 right now in Santa Rosa, you need to be at year 16. Wow, we can do better; we have to do better,” declared Barber. “So, we really need to be transparent about the funds that we have coming in and determine the most important factor in student learning. It is the teacher, and we have to commit to that.”
Thorpe said he was excited about the salary boost for new teachers, such as his daughter and daughter-in-law, but he’s devastated for veteran teachers, like his wife, who’ve largely been left out.
“It is so hard for me to see what our veteran teachers are going through what they’re going through right now. And, we have to help fix this problem. As Superintendent, I have to be in Tallahassee. I have to be working on helping our veteran teachers get a fair shake in this situation.”
Gunter added the key to attracting and keeping teachers is by including them in the decisions made on their behalf.
“We need to put in some advisory panels, so we can talk to teachers about what they want,” he said. “I think, really, it’s just an issue where you improve communication. You need to make sure you got them circled in on the decision-making. Let them set priorities for themselves, if they need more time, if they need planning periods, if they need resources.”
David Gunter, Michael Thorpe, and Karen Barber are all Republican candidates for Santa Rosa Superintendent of Schools. The winner of the primary, which is a Universal race, will win the election.