By DOTTY NIST
Presentations by representatives of the Walton Initiative for Great Students (WINGS) and the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center headlined the June 20 meeting of the Walton County Democratic Women’s Club at Enzo’s
restaurant in Santa Rosa Beach.
Christi Ferry and Jenny Long Dargavell of WINGS, a local political action committee (PAC), urged attendees to vote yes in the Aug. 26 primary on the question of whether the Walton County superintendent of schools should be an appointed rather than an elected position.
Currently Walton County elects its school superintendent. Dargavell revealed that the Walton County School District is one of only about 150 school districts in the United States that have an elected superintendent, with appointed/hired superintendents serving in the remaining approximately 99 percent of the districts.
“We need someone who can lead kids in an educational setting, not a politician,” Ferry commented.
Dargavell pointed out that the school district has a budget in excess of $100 million a year and some 8,000 students.
If a change to an appointed school superintendent is approved in the Aug. 26 referendum, the superintendent would be appointed by the Walton County School Board, whose members are elected by county voters. The hiring of a superintendent would involve a search process with input from the community, Ferry and Dargavell detailed.
Dargavell predicted that if the change is approved, “I think it’s a new day for Walton County.”
If approved, the change would take place at the end of the term of the current Walton County Superintendent of Schools Carlene Anderson, who has announced that she will not be seeking re-election in 2016.
The PAC representatives made the case that the change would provide for the county obtaining the most highly-qualified superintendent possible. While one criticism of the proposed change has been that the superintendent hired might not be from Walton County, Dargavell and Ferry saw it as a plus that a wider field of candidates for the position would be possible, with people from other areas being considered.
Currently the only qualifications to serve as superintendent of schools in Walton County are to be 18 years old or older and be registered as a voter in the county.
Dargavell said the only other major objection to the change that had been raised is that it would result in more expense. While admitting that hiring a superintendent might cost the school district more at the outset, she argued that a highly-qualified superintendent would be able to provide effective management and thus reduce the district’s costs over the long run.
More information on the issue, the PAC and its position is found on the web site www.kidsbeforepolitics.com.
Julie Hurst, chief executive officer for the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC,) was excited to reveal the latest details on the organization’s new facility in the works for DeFuniak Springs.
The new center will house all the agencies and staff needed to respond to cases of child abuse/neglect and provide support to children and their families in these circumstances in a welcoming, homelike setting.
“It’s all about finding the truth,” Hurst said.
The CAC’s Niceville facility has been in operation for 14 years, serving children from both Okaloosa and Walton counties.
Since renting space in DeFuniak Springs in April 2012, the number of children served in Walton County went from 80 to 220 per year, Hurst revealed. She explained that many more children than that need help, estimating that there are two-thirds more who suffer abuse or neglect which is not reported.
By approval of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, the CAC has secured a site on county-owned property on College Avenue, on which a full-service facility is to be built.
$250,000 was appropriated for the DeFuniak Springs center in the state’s 2014-15 fiscal year budget. Also approved by the state, Hurst told the group, was an amount of $100,000 per year to assist CAC in providing services.
She added that a yet-unnamed donor recently pledged $1 million toward the new center. This leaves $1.5 million to be raised, Hurst said. She was confident that the funds would be obtained..
“I can totally envision that first child walking through the door,” she said.
Approximately 60 percent of the CAC’s funding comes from the community, Hurst commented.
“I spent 25 years on the bench,” said Tom McGee, a former judge who was in attendance, “most of those on juvenile cases.
“The most difficult cases were child sexual abuse;” he said, adding, “without organizations like this, it is much more difficult.”
Walton County Democratic Women’s Club President Karen McGee commented that southerners could be proud that the first children’s advocacy centers were started in the southern United States, in Alabama. McGee, who formerly ran a center for abused and neglected children, added that it is often the case that a child’s abuser is a family member that they do not see often. In those instances it is possible to stop the abuse just by cutting off contact between the child and that person, she said.
When children aren’t able to put up with abuse any longer, they will tell someone, although not always a parent, Karen McGee observed. For the child, the “big thing” is to have someone listen to them, she said.
Club member Sheila Wachsman, a former prosecutor, complimented Hurst on her organization’s emphasis on getting the facts rather than assuming the guilt of those accused.
Working with the CAC are prosecutors who bring child abusers to justice. “Our prosecutors do an admirable job,” Hurst said.
Information on the CAC is available on the web site www.eccac.org or by calling 833-9237.
In other discussion, Tom McGee announced that he is running for South Walton Fire District Seat 2 and asked for attendees’ support in the upcoming election.
The club is seeking assistance with books for young readers being purchased for presentation to the public library in DeFuniak Springs. Members also discussed the club’s plans to participate in the Seaside Fourth of July parade.
By DOTTY NIST