Guest Columnist: Let’s Talk About Our County’s Schools

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By Jeff Hinkle

Jeff HinkleSince beginning my campaign, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people and hear about challenges and opportunities facing our communities. I’ve noticed a common theme: people are seeking a great economy, good home values and a family-oriented environment.

Our education system plays a prominent role in those desires. Most Okaloosa County residents don’t realize the school system comprises 50% of our county as well as state budget. It’s one of the largest organizations in government. So, being involved and concerned about our education system should be of every citizen’s concern.

My experience is that schools have dramatic effects on the nature and prosperity of the community – everything from housing values, jobs, and molding the next generation. Thus, if we want good growth, jobs and communities, we need to provide excellence in our schools across the board.

With this in mind, I’ve met with the people responsible for our schools — school board members, the current superintendent and a candidate for superintendent and the CFO. I also met with some key, well-known private schools to learn of their issues. The outcome? We are doing very well, but have some challenges. After fully reviewing the financials of the school district, I am happy to say that there is no major waste going on. Are there areas that can be improved? Yes, but we are not talking $100 bills – we are talking quarters and dimes. We are also blessed with an amazing and dedicated staff at all levels. Most are very hard working, dedicated and, quite frankly, sacrificing.

One very real issue the county and state will need to address is our buildings are crumbling—we need help with infrastructure. We haven’t built a county school in 20 years and the average school’s age is 50. When visiting some of our schools, the wear and tear is quite obvious. Walton and Santa Rosa Counties have already been working to make this adjustment. We must invest in new schools if we expect to attract new residents and businesses as well as retain existing staff. I think we can all agree our children come first and deserve to attend schools that are physically and structurally safe.

Because we are blessed with families that want to live in our beautiful area, we also experience a constant influx of new students, which creates demand for new facilities and access to activities beyond the core curriculum. Statistics show access to sports, drama, art, etc., though not considered core curriculums, better prepare our children for life in the real world when combined with a good core education.

These issues and others need to be addressed along with the hard community discussion of how to pay for it. The schools need to work on a strategic building plan, and our state legislators need to work at the state level on issues like state mandated budget buckets. For example, we have money available in an “operational” category, but not enough for buildings, which leaves us with cash that can’t be spent in areas of need. Changes in the law at the state level would give our county administrators flexibility to meet local needs. I have encouraged school leaders to develop a strategic plan, along with capital requirements. Our community can come together and develop the necessary plan that will move our schools forward and keep us competitive with the rest of the state. How to fund it can be solved by our dedicated and innovative community leadership, if given the necessary flexibility required.

Jeff Hinkle is the chairman of the Okaloosa County Republican Party and candidate for Okaloosa County District 4 State Representative.