The Gulf County School Board last week established a tentative millage rate while setting the first public hearing on the budget.
Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton also informed board members of current challenges in filling in the employee ranks.
On the instructional side, the district remains, with less than three weeks remaining before students arrive Aug. 13, in need of teachers; at least three at Port St. Joe Elementary, three to four at Wewahitchka Elementary and one at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School.
“There is a true teacher shortage,” Norton said, noting school officials in Franklin, Calhoun and Bay counties are also scrambling to fill positions. “For the first time in the seven years I have been superintendent we have a real teacher shortage.
“We’ve never been this down this late in the game.”
As of Monday, Bay County still had more than 50 open positions.
The issue has been compounded this summer as three teachers from out of the county who accepted jobs had to back away due to the inability to find affordable housing.
At Port St. Joe Elementary growth is also adding to the headaches.
The board last week approved an additional kindergarten class as the school is over the class size limit with just the four kindergarten classrooms.
And that, Principal Joni Mock said, is before the typical late-summer increase in kindergarten enrollment.
At fifth-grade, Port St. Joe Elementary is right at the class-size limit which, depending on any changes as the school arrives, could necessitate the creation of another class.
“We are at capacity, room-wise,” Mock told the board. “We’re trying to be creative.”
Norton said the district is also facing a problem with insufficient numbers of bus drivers.
A bus and sign were placed at Port St. Joe Elementary School last week urging folks to call to be a bus driver.
“It looks like we are starting the year without the bus drivers we need to run all the routes we have,” Norton said.
The district is looking at the potential some routes may have to be consolidated and Norton said they were also examining whether they might be able to tap any personnel from maintenance to drive some routes.
The school district submitted three pre-applications to Triumph Gulf Coast, seeking grant funding from the board that is overseeing disbursement of some $1.5 billion in BP fine money over 15 years.
Two of those pre-applications were approved by Triumph staff and the district has moved ahead on full applications.
One application seeks $300,000 to establish a culinary arts program at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, the other pursues $125,000 to expand agricultural programs at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School.
The third, seeking funding to purchase six buses, was not approved in the pre-application process.
But the district will also soon submit a pre-application seeking funding to establish a drone program at both ends of the county.
Norton said the costs would likely be into seven figures, but at this juncture the district is trying to get a handle of industry certification standards and requirements to understand what the scope of the program would need to be.
“I am glad we are pursuing these areas; we won’t have this opportunity again,” said board member John Wright.