As primary election voting inches closer, the window is closing for school board candidates to win over voters.
All three of the school board seats up for grabs will be decided on the primary ballot Aug. 28, and votes in the race can be cast as early as Aug. 13.
For much of the race, the debate has focused on teacher retention and salaries. The current school board voted unanimously against raising teacher salaries to the level proposed by the teachers union, Santa Rosa Professional Educators (SRPE). The decision, while still giving the teachers a raise, ran counter to the ruling of an independent magistrate and continued a trend of Santa Rosa teachers being paid thousands of dollars less on average than their counterparts in neighboring counties.
District 5 candidate Wei Ueberschaer said she was disappointed in that decision.
During a political forum hosted by Gulf Breeze News Aug. 3, current District 3 School Board member Carol Boston, representing the Navarre area schools, was asked about low job satisfaction found among teachers in the district according to Studer Institute data.
She replied that communication is the key.
“We need to find out what the teachers need, what the principal needs, what the students need,” she said. “Team building and communication, those are the big things.”
Her opponent, Navarre teacher Kenny Long, said raising salaries is part of that equation. He pointed out that though Okaloosa County School District has more revenue due to a larger tax base, it also pays teachers more per dollar collected than Santa Rosa does, meaning proportionally the district is behind.
In District 1, the two longtime teachers facing off for the seat both said they support raising teacher pay.
Linda Sanborn told a gathering of voters at the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce’s Candidate Forum July 31 that Santa Rosa schools are losing standing in the state. In four years, Santa Rosa School District has dropped from being ranked third statewide to 12th, despite remaining an “A” ranked district, Sanborn said.
“I don’t like that trend…We can’t continue with that trend,” she said.
She argued that the best way to tackle that slide is for the school district to raise teacher pay to attract and retain qualified teachers. She also called for a return to a seven-period school day. The school district dropped a period and 30 minutes of instruction time from the school day due to tight budgets.
“If you teach fewer minutes, obviously students will learn less,” she said.
Her opponent, Roderick Gracey, said he does not agree that the district is declining. He compared not attaining the top slot to the University of Alabama’s football team not winning the championship.
But he said he also supports raising teacher salaries.
Boston emphasized that the school board has raised teacher salary each year even if those raises were not to the level requested by SRPE.
“Teacher pay is clearly an issue, but we have to be fiscally responsible…There are so many aspects to that budget, and it is a challenge trying to meet all those. And I am up to that challenge,” she said.
Scott Peden, incumbent seeking the District 5 seat, echoed Boston’s sentiment.
“The district was in a poor financial condition (in 2011). It took seven years of long, hard work and unpopular decisions” to get the district on solid financial footing, he said.
He said the district is thriving under the current leadership, pointing to the expanding number of career academies in the district, the success of the internationally recognized STEAM education program and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by graduates last year.
“There is no better place to live, work and educate and raise your children that Santa Rosa County,” he said.
District 4 County Commission
Also running low on time to win over voters are the candidates for the District 4 County Commission seat, incumbent Rob Williamson and challenger Dave Piech.
Debates have been intense in a race that has raised more than $106,000 in campaign donations, more than any other local election on the ballot.
Piech fielded questions regarding a proposed additional homestead tax exemption that will be on the ballot in November. He said he understands that there is a potential impact to the county bottom line of $3 million to $4 million.
“It is up to the people. If we don’t see an increase in other areas from new business growth, we are going to have to trim that budget a little bit. I think we could look internally,” Piech said.
He pointed to the work of Property Appraiser Greg Brown and Clerk of Courts Don Spencer for utilizing new technology such as drones and finding ways to thin their budgets.
He also stated that economic development is interconnected with improving quality of life, say that without one the other cannot succeed.
“It all ties together,” he said.
Williamson was asked how to balance growth on the beach with preserving the natural landscape.
“I think we can do both. I have never had a vote that went against the Navarre Beach Master Plan. We have set aside $13 million to restore Santa Rosa Sound. We have renourished our beaches, and we have done all that while still growing tourism,” he said.
In 2017, Williamson made a push to have the entire pier, parking area and surroundings turned into a large complex of amenities for visitors and locals.
But his plan lacked the support of his fellow commissioners. Still, Williamson has consistently stated he would like to see development of the property into something more.
He also voiced in previous debates that he is against the “preservation clause” being included in federal land bills regarding the beach, stating the county should be able to decide how its lands can be used.
“I love serving in public office in Santa Rosa County. I love it because of what it affords me the opportunity to do,” Williamson told the crowd July 31.
Williamson once again pointed to his history of addiction. He said Aug. 21 would mark eight years of continuous sobriety.
“The people of this county, and some people in this room tonight, helped speak truth into my life when I was at my lowest. I believe they saved my life,” Williamson said.
He said his community service has been specific to Santa Rosa County while Piech spoke of his nearly 28 years with the Air Force working on multimillion-dollar engineering and growth planning projects.
“We are all concerned about this rapid growth and our infrastructure lagging behind, preserving our beaches and green spaces, making sure our homes don’t flood with stormwater. We need to get that under control,” Piech said at the July 31 forum.
He reiterated that sticking to the plans that the county has invested in is critical to doing that.
“As a county commissioner I think you should be held to a higher standard of transparency, sincerity and hard work,” he said.
As seen in the Aug. 9 issue of Navarre Press.
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