WCSD Superintendent Hughes speaks on plans for the future

WALTON COUNTY School District Superintendent Russell Hughes. (Photo courtesy of WCSD)

Story by JENNA BAILEY

At the regular School Board of Walton County, Florida (WCSB) meeting on August 21,
2018 — Walton County School District (WCSD) Superintendent Russell Hughes announced that the District had reached a record for the county of over 10,000 students. In an exclusive interview with the the DeFuniak Herald-Beach Breeze, Hughes speaks on the cause of this increase and what there is to look forward to within the current 2018-19 school year.

Was this increase expected? “We have been expecting this kind of increase because our
community is growing,” stated Hughes. “Projections given by the county and the state show us growing by three-thousand families in five years. We are expecting an influx of people, families and children coming. We cannot project how many families are moving with children, so we don’t know how many students we will add to our population, but we’re certainly looking for an increase and we’re monitoring that daily from last year, every year.”

Currently, which schools are the most populated? “We’ve had growth in our areas south,
north, Paxton and DeFuniak. So, we have had growth in the three geographical areas. The most growth has been in the south end at the high school level.” Due to the increase in the Walton County student population, is there a shortage in teachers? According to Hughes, there is a shortage of educators nationwide. “I wouldn’t say the growth has caused a shortage, it’s just that people aren’t going into education at the rate that they were. It’s a very difficult job, it is highly complex…So there is a national shortage but I’m grateful that we only started the year off needing five teachers. I think we are on a path to getting those. Compared to Bay County who need 50 at one point, and I think Escambia which needed hundreds at one point, we only needed five. So comparatively, we were ready.”

Hughes also stated that there is a significant need for bus drivers in the WCSD. “That is a part-time job with full-time benefits. They get full insurance and many benefits and only have to work around five hours a day. You can’t beat that.”

Are there any plans for new construction within the next few years to make room for the
growing student population? “We’re adding ten classrooms at South Walton [South Walton High School].We’re building Dune Lakes Elementary School, that’s a brand new facility. We’re going to look closely at Freeport, because I am over-capacity at the elementary setting. So, I’m looking there in some areas. I’m doing some athletic improvements at South Walton because our student athletic programs are growing. Those are some things you have to look forward to.”

Will there be any investing of money in north Walton schools? With parent concerns
regarding maintenance of older school buildings within the county such as Maude Saunders Elementary School and West DeFuniak Elementary, Hughes stated that the county has some of the best schools in the state, if not the country, but with that even the older schools need upkeep from time to time. Hughes recognized that over time there are roof leaks or air conditioning issues, but informed that when those issues arise the District makes an effort to address those problems in a timely manner. Hughes recently visited teachers at Maude Saunders elementary, where previously there had been reported air conditioning issues that to his knowledge have since been addressed, and is not aware of any additional problems regarding the school’s structure or air conditioning.

Is there anything that Hughes is particularly excited about and looking forward to for the
current school year? “School just excites me period. I did pick-up this morning at West DeFuniak, there are children excited about coming to school with their backpacks and their smiles, ready to see their teachers. We’re able to welcome our students to an A-plus school district for the first time since 2014. I’m looking forward to continued success, continued preparation for children and brightening the future of our community, our children and our students. Being a gateway to that kind of success is humbling yet empowering, just to think that every child that grows up in our community and goes to our public schools has the opportunity to impact and change lives. And there’s going to be some Jenna’s out there that are going to call me on the phone to interview me, and you saw the skills in high school, you saw their personalities and to see them full-grown and talk and able to do something and to know you had some part in it somewhere is very humbling. I’m grateful to have that opportunity. So I’m just excited about school and our great teachers and staff members and a plan to go forward.”