Inside a meeting room that more resembled a school storage room, the Gulf County School Board on Tuesday prepped for the start of another school year.
The boxes and supplies that filled much of the room, containing everything from notebooks to glue to paper clips and pencils, are destined to the two elementary schools as part of an effort that had a host of partners and contributors, including a grant from Save the Children.
A new school year adds a dash of fresh to the district.
After a couple of years of relative stability, the district has 23 new teachers for 2019-2020 and several positions remain open; the maintenance department is still trying to fill two openings.
Most of those new faces were marked present Monday and Tuesday as Centennial Bank provided breakfast to school employees at each end of the county as the district welcomed back employees.
Donations from local businesses provided $25 per employee as a gift to start the year.
“It looks like we have some great, classy employees coming in to do great things for Gulf District Schools,” said board member Cindy Belin.
In addition, the landscape changed by Hurricane Michael has brought significant changes in enrollment dynamics.
The board as of Tuesday has approved two new positions, and two new classrooms, kindergarten and sixth-grade, at Wewahitchka Elementary School.
“They are bursting at the seams,” said Martha Weimorts, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services.
The school’s pre-K classroom is full; the district is working with North Florida Child Development on options for an additional classroom in Wewahitchka.
Lacking that, pre-K students would have to be enrolled, and bused if necessary, at Port St. Joe Elementary.
“It is too bad because we don’t have enough kids in Port St. Joe, but Wewahitchka is full and we can not enroll anymore,” Weimorts said.
Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton said modular classrooms might be a last resort depending how the school year progresses.
However, several noted that even if the district went that direction where they would place them on the land-locked WES campus was a separate question.
Norton said many families displaced from Bay County by Michael have found Wewahitchka and enrollment would appear to be headed up on the north end of the county, long trailing Port St. Joe in student enrollment.
District officials will be closely monitoring attendance figures at all schools in the opening weeks.
The district also opens a new school year participating in the state’s Guardian Program, which allows for select personnel to carry concealed weapons to use in the case of an active shooter incident.
The district will provide active-shooter training in the coming weeks.
The Gulf County Sheriff’s Deputy assigned to each school will remain in place with a roving supervisor.
In addition, the district is bolstering mental health services, with a mental health kiosk at each school out of an initiative from the governor’s office.
The overall message to families: the district has moved beyond Hurricane Michael.
“We’re no longer talking about the storm,” said Lori Price, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction. “We are moving forward with all the motivation and enthusiasm we can muster.”
Price also urged parents and guardians to ensure their children are ready for school by establishing “a routine.”
Ensure proper sleep each school night, ensure they have any needed meal money, their clothes, shoes each day; rinse, repeat.
“Hopefully we’ll have a great school year with great weather,” said board member Ruby Knox. “I hope we have a great year on both ends of the county.”
High school athletics
Norton urged board members to lead a community push to support high school athletics in the coming year.
In short, the storm hurt football revenues last year and football largely funds all the other sports, save, maybe basketball at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.
“Our athletic programs really suffered from the storm,” Norton said.
Port St. Joe football lost the equivalent of three games last year due to Michael, nearly $20,000 in revenue, Norton said, and the school’s athletics fund was starting the year barely in the black.
And unlike many other programs, the district does not provide funding for athletics other than spending dollars on infrastructure.
“Football funds everything across the board,” Norton said, while adding that despite rumors, “We are not shutting any (sports) down.”
But, he noted, the issue is particularly critical in Port St. Joe due to the way funds are raised on football game nights.
In Wewahitchka, the football program pays a flat fee to another school organization to operate concessions, etc., but all revenue from concessions, game programs and the like go to support the football program.
In Port St. Joe, the football program only receives the gate.
Concessions are sold by band boosters, the girls’ track program and Project Graduation, NJROTC collects 50/50 drawing revenue and cheerleaders collect sales from game programs.
Norton said the district already taps local businesses for considerable monetary support and was reluctant to tap the business sector again in support of athletics.
Norton encouraged board members to lead the charge.
“Help make up that deficit, be a supporter and encourage people to attend games,” Norton said. “The best show in town is in Port St. Joe or Wewahitchka on Friday nights.”