PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — Darren Henderson was supposed to start at a new school in a little more than a week.
Darren Henderson had resigned from an administrative position at a school in Escambia County to start at Pea Ridge Elementary in Pea Ridge, a small community in between Pace in Milton.
He even had a classroom theme picked out: The Henderson Harbor Club. He had just a few decorations left to put up.
Then, he got the call from the school’s principal.
“You could tell it wasn’t a comfortable call,” Darren Henderson said Thursday afternoon, sitting nuzzled on a couch next to his wife Kelli.
Pea Ridge Principal Dana Fleming told him he was one of 80 or more teachers who were let go by the Santa Rosa County School District following a decline in students attending school in the county.
The Hendersons were caught off guard. Working decades in schools, they say they haven’t had to worry about job security.
Now, they’ll have to rely on Kelli’s income as a paraprofessional at Pea Ridge Elementary to pay their bills.
“For us, it’s literally an entire household. It’s paying our mortgage, it’s paying our cars, it’s paying our electric,” Kelli Henderson said. “It’s providing food. It’s literally everything coming out of a ‘paras’ paycheck.”
Santa Rosa County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick sympathizes with those who lost their jobs. It’s not something he wanted to do, he said.
“My heart breaks for these teachers and their families,” Wyrosdick said in a phone interview with WKRG Thursday morning.
Wyrosdick said the decision came back to simple yet complicated economics.
The school district gets about $7,000 in funding per student enrolled in the Santa Rosa County School District. About 1,200 fewer students than expected signed up for school in Santa Rosa County for the fall semester.
That could mean a $8.4 million hit to the school district’s budget. Wyrosdick said the money just isn’t there to pay for extra teachers.
“Without students, we don’t get the funding, he said. “Without the funding, it makes it very difficult to continue using the resources we have committed to paying the teachers.
“The bottom line is without students in schools, I do not need 80 plus teachers that we currently have employed and because of that lack of funding, we will have to remove them from employment.”
Wyrosdick said he wasn’t certain the reason behind the drop in Santa Rosa County students, but he opined it was due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 82% of parents in Santa Rosa County have opted for the students to attend school in-person this fall. About 10% have chosen remote learning and about 8% will attend virtually.
“We’ve seen an increase in home school. We’ve seen an increase in private school, and obviously, we’ve seen more students going virtual,” Wyrosdick said. “Some parents out there, as much as we will provide safeguards or safety measures, they’re not willing to put their child in school.”
The Hendersons said they don’t fault the administration for making tough decisions. They just wish there had been an alternative outcome.
“I know it wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I’d like to know if there was something different that could have been done,” Darren Henderson said. Obviously, we want to have a job and a way to pay the bills.”
“I know it had to be horrible,” Kelli Henderson added. “I know it had to be one of the hardest things you could do as an administrator to call these people you work alongside every day. You build these bonds and these relationships with them and have to let them know this is their new reality.”
Wyrosdick said the teachers who were laid off shouldn’t lose all hope. He said the school district should have a clearer picture of how many students it has when school starts Aug. 24.
“My hope and goal is that come August the 24th, students show up at our schools, and I have to hire everyone of them back,” he said. “That would please me greatly.”
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