There aren’t any parties allowed in school board races in Okaloosa County. But you could be forgiven for mistaking July 7th’s six-person question and answer format-style debate for having two camps with three candidates each in them.
Essentially the two loose alliances held vastly different qualifications to lead the school district and philosophies on just how to do that.
It was made very clear to voters who came to watch the discussion in person that they were at a fork in the road – continue on the path laid out, or consider a radical change from the current dichotomy.
On one hand, the incumbents, Dr. Lamar White, Dr. Diane Kelley and Ms. Linda Evanchyk represented the status quo. A-rated schools with a school board dominated by career educators. The group has a combined 100+ years teaching in the classroom, leading schools in various parts of the county, or acting as the school system’s representatives.
On the other hand, an alternative is offered by Cara Marion, Jerry Buckman and Darrel Barnhill. Two of the three are veterans, one is a substitute teacher and another fought with administration officials over issues stemming from the viewing of an R-rated movie, Alexander, in her daughter’s talented and gifted program at Niceville High School in the fall of 2021.
The incumbents on the stage talked about the high-performing schools in Okaloosa County and the announcement earlier that day: Okaloosa County was once again an A-rated school district. There are currently only two other county school districts in the state who, like Okaloosa County, have been rated an A school district since the latest iteration of testing programs encapsulated in the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) testing program in 2014.
Kelley, White and Evanchyk also talked about their continued partnership with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. The district has, for years, worked with and paid for the sheriff’s office to provide each and every school with a resource officer to protect children. In addition, the incumbents pushed for and received funds from the state to increase safety measures to ‘harden’ schools in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting at the end of the last decade.
Finally, the incumbents all mentioned teacher pay as a past success and a future priority for the district. They all spoke about the issue of retaining teachers conflating with the rapidly-increasing cost of living in Okaloosa County. Current School Board Member Linda Evanchyk noted that the cost of living was so high that many teachers simply could not afford to live here. She added that, thanks to Governor Ron DeSantis, teacher pay had increased dramatically over the last four years and gave teachers more buying power to use.
The challengers in the respective races for school board highlighted four specific things in their list of reasons to vote for them: Accountability, Transparency, Accessibility, and preparing for growth.
Several of the incumbents mentioned both the scandal involving former Okaloosa County Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson as well as a more recent scandal involving candidate Cara Marion’s daughter being shown Alexander as a part of the curriculum in her classics class at Niceville High School.
All three of the candidates attacked the incumbents for not making it easy or clear enough for parents and citizens to find information about what the school district planned to use recently-approved half-cent sales tax money on. As a retort, current Board Member Dianne Kelley providedbrought the receipts for the money spent. She produced, while her opponent accused the district of lacking transparency, several binders she claimed explained in excruciating detail the regulatory framework ensuring every half-penny was spent properly. She also referenced several pages on the Okaloosa County School District website which showed when, where and on what the ½ cent sales tax money was and is spent on.
Candidate Marion also delineated her idea of accessibility on the school board when she made a proposal to have quarterly school board-style open meetings in addition to the school board meetings the school board members host twice monthly. She added that, if elected, she would host one of these meetings monthly, so that constituents would be able to speak with her about issues in an open forum on a regular basis.
Finally, Candidate Darrell Barnhill noted that the district needs to prepare for the explosive population growth he sees continuing in Okaloosa County. He added that a large subdivision will soon begin to be constructed near his home in the more rural portion of northwest Okaloosa County.
We have the entire debate recording for when you have time to listen – click below for more from the debate!