FORT WALTON BEACH — Candidates for Okaloosa County School Board had the chance to share their platforms at a forum hosted by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Candidates running in three different districts answered questions compiled by the chamber's executive board Thursday morning. The forum was open to the public.

Here are the questions and answers from the forum. Candidates' responses have been condensed.

District 1

Willie Harmon and incumbent Dr. Lamar White

Q: What motivates you to become a board member?

Willie Harmon: I was born and raised here in Okaloosa County ... things need to take change. My main objective is to restore the proper function of our board. I've been working with the school system for about 20 years and my main concern is that every child has an opportunity to have a quality education. 

Q: How can a board know if its goals are being accomplished and policies are being carried out?

Lamar White: There are multiple ways. There are goals associated with student performance and the way we measure that and that would be in terms of how our schools are graded and how our children perform in various assessments. If you want to look at goals in terms of finances, you can take a look at our audits freely available on the Okaloosa School District website.

Q: Given that the board did not approve a sales tax referendum, how do you propose to fund the nearly $150 million in identified projects in the district?

Harmon: If the funding is not available through tax increase, at some point money has to be raised from other entities that we have in the district. Money needs to be diverted into infrastructure. We have schools that are 30, 40 years old. The only way our citizens in Okaloosa County are going to support any kind of tax ... they have to realize that money being given to the county has already been allocated to do what it's supposed to do.

White: In the 1994 in the first sales tax initiative I was heavily involved. In 2010, the School District came to the voters and asked for another sales tax. Only six precincts out of 52 voted for that sales tax. In 2018 there were various proposals for a sales tax. We were very gratified that a citizens group came forward and said they would lead the effort to market the sales tax. However, after the School District scandal, as the Daily News refers to it, that same group came back to the School Board and told us, 'We can't do it now.' Mr. Rodney Walker said that right now the school district probably couldn't sell dollar bills for 50 cents.

Q: Are you in favor of a local optional sales tax for the School Board?

Harmon: Yes I am, over time. But we're not ready for a tax now.

White: Every time that has come forward, I've always voted for it.

District 3

Alby Clendennin, Linda Evanchyk and Dr. Joe Slusser

Q: What motivates you to become a board member?

Clendennin: Quite simply all the time I've spent in the district these last few years as a high school student. I've witnessed firsthand how budget shortcomings can affect students as well as educators. I want to be able to make a difference for the School District since it's given me a bright future.

Evanchyk: We're at a pivotal time. We've had a lot success but we've had some challenges. We're kind of at a crossroads and we need some people on the board who have the background. It makes since to have that teacher's voice on the board. I can be that voice.

Slusser: My heart is with the kids. Every child in this school system ... we need to have special programs for every single child. We need to prepare these kids and we need someone to sit in that seat who will take care of that. 

Q: Given that the board did not approve a sales tax referendum, how do you propose to fund the nearly $150 million in identified projects in the district?

Clendennin: We definitely don't want to look at property taxes.  While we weren't able to pass a sales tax this time, as a board member I will most definitely pursue it. At one of the last School Board meetings, we found out they cannot afford the SRO program (Student Resource Office). We're going into reserves. We need to figure out how to fund our School District.

Evanchyk: We need to look at the district structure. There are 400 office employees. We need to see if all of the these positions are important. When you cut, you want to start from the top and go down and look at those salaries and expenditures. You want to keep those cuts away from the classroom. That is unfortunate that we don't have the local option sales tax, because that would be the way to go. I would be in favor of that.

Slusser: The infrastructure in our county is hurting and the School District is hurting. We can tighten our belts, we have to find a way to get (schools) taken care of. Not just to build new buildings, but fix ones that are in disrepair. I am in favor of a local option sales tax.

Q: What policy or policies would you propose to see enacted or changed if you are elected and why?

Clendennin: I would change how we go about having SROs on our campuses. It tends to be both males. I would like to see both male and female SROs on campuses. It ends up making SROs more approachable. And I would like to see a second SRO on Laurel Hill's campus.

Evanchyk: I'd like to see a three-prong approach to school safety. We need to look at some internal things, more mental health counseling. We need to have more trained mental health counselors in our schools. Just trying to keep the bad guys out is not going to get it. We need to find a way to let students know it's OK to share if they think a student is having a problem. I'd like to see teen hotline that students can call similar to Crimestoppers.

Slusser: School safety and security. We need to find a way to not be reactive to these problems. We need to work from the inside out and also work to make our buildings safe and secure.

Q: How can a board know if its goals are being accomplished and its policies are carried out?

Clendennin: Talk to parents and students. We ask them, 'Hey, how's this policy working out for you? How does it affect you day-to-day in your classroom?' It's very simple: We just need to be able to communicate better with our parents and our students.

Evanchyk: You can tell if things are working. The citizens will let you know. As you know, our district has 21 A schools ... there's all kind of data to see how that's working. But the most important thing is the feedback you get from students and parents.

Slusser: It's clarity, it's consistency and it's communications. We can have a phone system where people can call with concerns. We can do surveys within the schools and have parents do anonymous surveys in the schools. But you must have clarity of action, consistency of how you react to things and what you do, and you must have communication between all levels.

District 5

Dr. Diane Kelley and Dr. Branford McAllister

Q: What motivates you to become a board member?

Kelley: I believe it is critically important to be a productive member of the community you live in. Serving on the School Board is a way to be a servant leader and put my experience to work in another way for you.

McAllister: We all know how valuable our School District is to our quality of life and I chose that because I thought this is where I can make the most contributions to our community.

Q: Given that the board did not approve a sales tax referendum, how do you propose to fund the nearly $150 million in identified projects in the district?

Kelley: The state has allocated some new funding for us, such as allocations for health specialists. So we will have a health specialist in every school to deal with mental health issues. I believe that it's not too soon to start advocating for a sales (tax) initiative for the school district. Once we're on the path to regain public trust, we can move forward and lay the groundwork for the sales tax. I will not be your candidate to ever be a proponent for a millage rate (increase), but I will be your candidate to advocate to put a sales tax on the ballot.

McAllister: What I'm going to advocate is that we take a very serious scrub. Our best hope then is to take a very serious look from the bottom up and make every program, every project, every position, every activity justify itself on two primary priorities which are the safety of our students and our staff and the excellence of our education.

Q: Are you in favor of a local optional sales tax for the school board?

Kelley: Absolutely.

McAllister: I am. If you consider funding has dropped ... sales tax may be the best possible option.

Q: What policy or policies would you propose to see enacted or changed if you are elected and why?

Kelley: I concur with policy changes implemented by Dr. White such as making the board more transparent. Previously, a person who would come forward to the School Board would fill out a blue card and could only speak to items on the agenda. Now with the updated policy, they can speak on any item on their mind. These are small steps but needed steps.

McAllister: I think we should be concentrating on the big issues. When I think about the big issues, the policy I would discuss that I think needs changing is going to a much more collaborative method of solving the big problems. Our School Board does have the prerogative of commissioning committees. For big problems that are challenging to solve, bring together citizens groups of other stakeholders to tackle these very big problems.