There was no mistaking the gaping hole evident during Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the Gulf County School Board.
The single rose in front of an empty chair on the dais, the chair draped with a black robe and purple sash.
During a meeting just days after the death of board member Billy Quinn, Jr. following a lengthy illness, the School Board and staff members remembered the kind, humble man who spent the past 19 years on the board.
“He just represents a gentleman,” said Duane McFarland, a district supervisor after a stint as principal at Port St. Joe High School. “Whether we were talking about policy or disagreeing about how things were going, he was always a gentleman.
“His name should be in the dictionary next to the word ‘gentleman.’ He cared about us and about the kids.”
Quinn was elected to the board at the turn of the century and during his tenure he became the first African-American to be elected chairman of the Gulf County School Board, more than 40 years after public schools were integrated.
Before his death he was the most senior school board member in Florida, noted Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton.
“He didn’t tell you how to do your job, you just watched him,” said board member Cindy Belin of her entry onto the dais.
Recently-elected board member Ruby Knox added, “He was our role model, Denny (McGlon) and I when we came on the board. We’re going to miss him so much.”
Quinn’s immediate family attended the board meeting, which included Mary Lou Cumbie singing “Eyes on the Sparrow.”
“I have been in the school system for 30 years and never ever did I doubt that his heart wasn’t with those kids,” Cumbie said. “I mourn for us his loss.
“Mr. Quinn belonged to us, he belonged to this community.”
And Quinn was remembered for his unique style, for example his focus on sovereign immunity laws when kids were traveling out of state or the district’s reserve fund, which Quinn was adamant each year should be at least 5 percent of the overall budget.
Most of all, Quinn was remembered for his personal touch, grace, even under fire, and an attitude and smile evolved from grace.
“He was the calm,” said board chair Brooke Wooten. “No matter what was going on the schools or his life, he was the calm.”
Services for Quinn will be 11 a.m. ET Saturday at the R. Marion Craig Coliseum (The Dome) at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.
On Tuesday the board approved all American flags at district schools and sites be flown at half-staff through sunset Saturday.
State standardized testing began this week as all students in grades 4-10 took the Florida Standards Assessment English language arts/writing test.
The elementary school testing is done completely on paper while the high schools test entirely on computers.
In addition, third-grade students took the FSA reading test this week.
The picture is becoming clearer and a shade brighter for the district’s finances as the first budget season since Hurricane Michael looms.
Once projecting a possible 35 percent drop in ad valorem (property) tax collections for the coming year, Norton said the estimate now appears to be more in line with 20 percent.
Any estimate is just that, an estimate; until Property Appraiser Mitch Burke certifies a tax roll in July, all numbers are guesswork.
The district is also part of a local application to Triumph Gulf Coast to receive grant funding to offset 50 percent of property tax losses in the current year.
And it appears a legislative measure will mean about $300,000 in disaster offset dollars.
However, nothing is set in stone until the Florida Legislature adjourns its current session in May.
“Right now it appears we are going to be about $400,000 off,” Norton said. “That is better than the $1.5 million we were looking at a month ago.
“We are trending in the right direction. Wait until next month, but we are trending better.”
The board formally approved a grant from Triumph Gulf Coast to help fund the establishment of a drone program in the two high schools.
The Triumph grant of $750,000 will be matched by some $650,000 from the district to create a program that could lead students to several industry certifications.
The district is likely to collaborate with Unmanned Systems, Inc. (see related story) on creating the curriculum and instruction for the program.
As part of the approval, the district is requesting an additional year beyond the grant’s original five years to meet benchmarks due to the impacts of Hurricane Michael.
“We’ve worked hard to get everything in place,” Norton said. “We need to roll forward.
“We’re confident of where we are at. It’s a lot of money that will expand our offerings at the high school.”