NICEVILLE, Fla. (WKRG) — Three seats for the Okaloosa County School board are up for grabs in the 2022 election. Yes for Okaloosa County Schools is an independently funded political group pushing ads and events to elect new school board members.

Okaloosa Co. School Board candidates:

RacesIncumbentChallenger
District 1Lamar WhiteJerry Buckman
District 3Linda Evanchyk Darrel Barnhill
District 5Diane KelleyCara Marion
Okaloosa County Election Official Candidates

Committee chairman Pat Ryan was at the center of a lengthy letter from Marcus Chambers regarding the election and accusations made against the current board and district management. Chambers endorsed the incumbent candidates in his letter on August 13.

Ryan said his group is not a political party running campaigns, but a movement pushing for change in Northwest Florida after felony charges and suspensions fell upon the district management in 2019.

The school board is made of five members, making just three the majority vote for agenda items moving forward. The superintendent said a change that big is a threat to the district’s progress and could monopolize the entity.

Below is the full response from Ryan sent to WKRG News 5:

I was saddened to see Superintendent Marcus Chambers’ recent statement declaring his support for our three school board incumbents running for re-election. Aside from the ethical implications of the CEO of our school district advocating for individual candidates to serve on the board which oversees him and his administration, much of what he wrote simply isn’t true. It’s concerning to see the public official in charge of a $400 Million+ annual budget resort to drama, fear-mongering and false accusations.

It’s very misleading and deceptive when Marcus, whom I know and actually like, says my goal is to “take over” the Okaloosa School District. He’s never spoken to or communicated with me on this matter, so he certainly doesn’t know why I’m doing this. I’ve never thought, said nor implied to anyone that I want to control anything relating to our school district. Anyone who thinks these three challengers can be controlled surely doesn’t know them. 

Since 2019, our committee, YES For Okaloosa Schools has exposed the truth while advocating for Improved Accountability in a district that’s seen multiple child and sexual abuse scandals in the last few years. Yes, I’ve spent a lot of money getting the truth out. But it’s important, so I’d do it again. Our schools are our future. We need School Board members who are willing to stand up and support the Superintendent in taking decisive action to investigate how these and other horrific activities could have occurred in our schools for years with no one reporting them. Here’s a list of felony charges and dispositions the Okaloosa School District has seen since 2017: https://truth4ok.com/felonyarrests/. There’s a terrible trend here that Superintendent Chambers and the incumbent board members won’t address. That’s the first thing that needs to change. 

Superintendent Chambers talks about building new schools. Yes, the district has a plan to build three new schools with a building for additional space (“half” a school) in Destin. These are to address overcapacity in current schools. However, what they don’t address is how to ever replace any of the currently obsolete schools in the district.

Of 37 campuses, the buildings on around 24 (65%) are over 50 years old, and around 14 of the 24 (38% of 37 total) are over 60 years old. The odds are that it would be more cost-effective to replace some, if not all of these buildings sooner rather than later – simply because their age means they’re horribly expensive to heat, cool and maintain. But the district has never studied whether it’s more cost-effective to renovate or replace them. Replacing buildings costs more up front but can save Millions of taxpayer dollars over 20-30 years due to energy and maintenance savings. 

The best analogy is a gas-guzzler car with 300,000 miles on it. At some point, the repair bills are so much that you just throw in the towel and decide to spend your money on a replacement that has lower maintenance costs and gets better gas mileage. Because it will save you money. That’s where we are on our oldest buildings. But we’re talking about school buildings where we want a safe, healthy environment for our teachers, staff and students. So there’s a lot more at stake.

Superintendent Chambers claims we can’t afford to replace any obsolete buildings. The fact is it may well be MORE expensive over time to keep and renovate them versus replace buildings on site (which would require NO new land). And we wouldn’t replace them all at once. We’d have to replace them over time, likely 10-20 years.

Over the next 20 years, the school district will receive about $1.3 Billion for capital projects from sales tax and property tax revenue. If the half-cent sales tax is extended another 10 years, it will be around $1.6 Billion. They can issue bonds with voter approval to get access to the money sooner if necessary. But what’s important to realize is that it may well be more cost-effective over the next 30-40 years to replace many buildings sooner rather than renovate. Yet the district hasn’t done a cost-benefit analysis of each building to answer that question. That’s another thing that needs to change. See https://truth4ok.com/no-plan/ for more on this.

Superintendent Chambers claims the current school board members “challenge me often.” Unfortunately, their voting record clearly shows the opposite. Since November, 2020 when Dewey Destin left the board, there has not been one dissenting vote on any motion made at an Okaloosa School Board meeting. Not one. Every motion has passed 5-0. How can five educated adults agree on everything 100% of the time? They can if they’re avoiding contentious issues like Improving Accountability and demanding taxpayer dollars be wisely spent. Anyone who watches their board meetings and workshops on line will see that they rarely, if ever discuss contentious issues or debate policy alternatives. Superintendent Chambers benefits – regardless of the job he and his staff do – since he never gets called on the carpet for anything.

It’s critical to point out the unethical nature of a CEO (the Superintendent) advocating for any particular candidate to sit on the board that oversees him and the district. A CEO picking the members of the board that is supposed to call him on the carpet when things don’t go well is one of the worst business and governmental practices possible. This is a big red flag.

If we look at our school board’s lack of engagement and oversight – as evidenced by their voting record and refusal to seek answers to why there have been so many scandals – it’s easy to see why Mr. Chambers would want to keep them. Sadly, the board routinely gives him a pass when things go wrong. Remember when Governor DeSantis suspended disgraced Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson? Mr. Chambers was her deputy when this board never stood up to her. They never publicly asked the Governor to suspend her; he suspended her with no request from them. The cozy relationship between the Superintendent and School Board directly contributed to that scandal. The board never did anything to hold Mrs. Jackson accountable when things went wrong. Mr. Chambers benefits from that same cozy relationship and lack of engaged oversight, so why would he want to change that?

There is one thing Mr. Chambers wrote on which we wholeheartedly agree. We have the  best group of educators in the state if not the nation. And it’s largely for them – and students and staff – that we’re exposing the truth and advocating for improvements. Our committee has heard from so many teachers about the climate of retaliation in our district. So many teachers fear speaking out about what needs to improve in our district, because they don’t want to get fired. That also must change; our teachers and staff deserve better. So we stand with our teachers and staff and advocate loudly on their behalf for improvements to the climate and culture in which they have to work.

I hope you see what’s really going on here. Mr. Chambers is a nice man but he’s not addressing our problems. I’ll issue this challenge to anyone reading this. We’ve posted numerous facts about the Okaloosa School District at https://truth4ok.com/. If you can find anything there which is not fact or fact-based analysis, please send us an email at info@yesforokaloosaschools.com and I’ll edit or remove that content. And please remember to vote. Vote for Accountability. The Accountability candidates are BUCKMAN, BARNHILL and MARION.

Pat Ryan, Yes for Okaloosa Schools

Election day for the Okaloosa County School Board and other local races is on Nov. 8. Early voting begins Oct. 24. Registration deadline for voters is Oct. 11.

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