MILTON — Ahead of the Aug. 28 primary election, the six candidates running for the Santa Rosa County School Board are focused on the challenges facing the board and how they plan to address them if elected.
While three of the five districts (1, 3 and 5) are on the ballot, only two incumbents — District 3′s Carol Boston and District 5’s Scott Peden — are running for reelection.
Candidates have been campaigning for more than a year on issues such as student growth, infrastructure, funding, safety and teacher recruitment.
“The biggest challenge facing the school board at the moment is securing more state funding for operational expenses,” said Wei Ueberschaer, District 5 candidate. “My immediate priorities … would be to provide a salary and benefits package for educators and paraprofessionals that is comparable to neighboring counties and restoring instructional time that was lost to … students in 2011.”
Although Ueberschaer believes the district can implement these priorities now, she said that increased state funding, which has not been reallocated to safety, would make the mission of providing the best education for students less burdensome.
Student growth and funding seemingly go hand-in-hand. The district has seen a large increase in student population, but limited funds to expand the district or make renovations to aging schools.
“I feel our greatest challenge is managing the prolific growth with limited financial resources,” Boston said. “At first blush from the first week of school, our district will grow another 700 students.”
With more students comes the need for increased safety practices. District 3 candidate Kenny Long said that while his first inclination is to say safety and security of students and employees is the No. 1 priority, that is already being addressed throughout the district.
“The single biggest immediate issue is teacher pay. We not only lag behind our sister county by $7,000-$10,000 on average, but our teachers make about the same currently at any given level,” Long said. “While teacher salaries have gone up some with years of experience, we haven’t even kept pace with cost of living.”
District 5 incumbent Peden agrees, saying that safety is a priority. However, he believes funding is the board’s biggest challenge right now.
“We received a lot of money from the state, but almost all of it is earmarked, mostly for safety,” Peden said. “The money we got for (school resource officers) was about $1.4 million, but it’s going to cost about $2 million to do it … We have to make up for that shortfall.”
Peden said the base student allowance — or the money schools get per student to run the district — the district received this year only increased by $0.47, but the safety requirements will cost much more than that.
Roderick Gracey is running for a District 1 seat. He also believes safety is a major concern that the district has already begun to address, but the biggest challenge is building a better working relationship between the district, board and community.
“Our county used to be like a family. It has gotten now that it just doesn’t seem like a very trusting relationship between the school board, and the public, and the employees and the administration,” Gracey said. “I want to return to the day that we work together to do what’s best, especially for our students. And second of all, to take care of the employees that are in the trenches every day.”
District 1 candidate Linda Sanborn is concerned about the retention rate of teachers because of the lower rate of pay compared to other counties in Northwest Florida.
“The problem is, Santa Rosa County teachers are paid significantly less than Okaloosa County teachers and Escambia County teachers,” Sanborn said. “As a result, it’s hard to recruit really good teachers and then when we get them and they spend a couple years looking for jobs at these other places.”