Saying a new school year will bring changes was cliché years ago.
But, really, the year about to start brings significant changes to Gulf County Schools.
Teachers got the year rolling Monday, enjoying a morning county-wide celebration at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School sandwiched between time spent networking within schools and getting classrooms ready.
“This is my fourth year and this is the first time we’ve had this opportunity to all get together,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton.
Students arrive back this Monday.
The changes begin in the classrooms where the district will welcome 11 new teachers, with another at Wewahitchka Elementary School to be filled.
The number of new teaches is nearly double each of the past three years.
In addition, none of the four public schools begin the year with the same top administrator as one year ago, though each “new” principal will be a familiar face.
Jay Bidwell, who became principal at Wewahitchka Elementary in January, moves to the junior/senior high school as Lori Price moves to the district offices.
Tracy Bowers, district Teacher of the Year last year, goes from a classroom at Wewahitchka Elementary School to the front office as principal.
In Port St. Joe, Sandra Cook, who has spent the past four years as a math teacher at the elementary school replaces Sue Gannon principal.
Gannon will teach math at the junior/senior high school.
And Duane McFarland, former principal at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School before spending three years at the district offices, remains at the junior/senior year high school where he has been since March after Jeremy Knapp left on a leave of absence and did not return.
Stepping away from the schools, the district offices will see major change.
Sara Joe Wooten, the Deputy Superintendent for Instruction and a part of the district for over 30 years retires at the end of the month. Price succeeds Wooten under a different title and job specifications.
Deborah Crosby, with over 40 years with the district, also retires at the end of the month as Director of Special Services. Martha Weimorts succeeds Crosby, though, like Price, with a different job title and specifications.
The departure of more than 90 years of service to the district necessitated a restructuring of district offices this summer.
If all that was not enough change, the district will lose another 50 years of experience when George Cox, the District 2 School Board member, retires, his successor to be decided Aug. 26.
If there were changes for the district, some things remained the same and not all in a good way.
The district will be lighter a projected 70-75 students, though the state’s first formal count will not be until October.
If proved correct, that estimate will reduce enrollment to less than 1,800 students – a decline of more than 400 over the past decade.
The result is felt at the district’s bottom line, which bled some $355,000 of additional cuts this year with the budget reduced to roughly $12.5 million – more than $5 million less than seven years ago.
The number of employees is 265, down nearly 100.
A bright spot – an increase in property values, and the tax base, for the first time in seven years.
“We think our situation will improve next year budget-wise,” Norton said. “We have had seven years of cuts. We are not going to talk about cuts any more until further notice.
“As optimists we’ll say the glass is half full.”
And school board members preferred Monday morning to follow that lead, looking ahead to the opening of schools and putting a difficult summer in the rearview mirror.
“We’re looking forward to another fantastic year,” said board member Billy Quinn, Jr. “I think the parents are excited school is starting and I think the kids are, too.”