As 2018 was drawing to a close and November’s general election approached, it became apparent in local political circles that a young man by the name of Marcus Chambers had emerged as the public face of the Okaloosa County School District.

 

Dogged by scandal, Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson was rarely being seen outside of meetings her office required her to attend, while assistant superintendent Chambers, 44, addressed at least one group of county Republicans and appeared at a Ron DeSantis campaign stop on Okaloosa Island the night before DeSantis was elected governor.

Rumors persisted that Jackson had decided not to run for a third term in 2020 and that Chambers was planning to step into the race for her seat.

Chambers confirmed last week “my goal has always been to run (for superintendent) in 2020." He also said he was “unaware of whether Mrs. Jackson had made a final decision to run.”

On Jan 11, the mantle of superintendent was thrust upon Chambers when DeSantis, citing a lengthy list of misdeeds, suspended Jackson and named him her successor. Jackson’s appeal of that decision is destined to be heard by the Florida Senate. She could be reinstated. She could also be removed from office permanently.

Should the Senate remove Jackson, Chambers will have two years of lead time over potential opponents — former state Rep. Ray Sansom has already pre-filed to run — to prove he is worthy of voter consideration.

Chambers told the Northwest Florida Daily News that he’s aware he’s been given a leg up in his planned run for superintendent, but he added that he’s been taught better than to take such things for granted.

“My father was in the military for over 33 years, and worked as an ROTC instructor at Fort Walton Beach High School. He told me do the right thing for the right reason and be genuine. That’s what I intend to do for the next two years,” Chambers said. “Whatever happens two years from now will happen. I understand that. If I do the right thing now, two years from now will work itself out.

"My full energy and attention in my role as superintendent will be for the benefit of our students and employees," he said.

Chambers received a call Jan. 10 from DeSantis to inform him of his decision to suspend Jackson and put him in her job. The rest of the School District would learn what had happened the next day.

“I think to some extent there was a sense of shock. There’s a sense of disbelief for some,” Chambers said of the reaction to the news. “The district is a tight-knit group.”

Chambers steadfastly refused to speak critically of Jackson, but did say “I do believe the district is ready to move forward.”

“I’m not mentioning any person, I’m not taking me into account,” he said. “People know the fantastic School District we have. We have to do a good job going forward of communicating that.”

With the district seemingly extracting itself from a scandal that erupted at the beginning of the 2017 school year, Chambers said he knows there now exists an expectation of transparency not only for himself, but for the district.

“I hold myself accountable to communicate with people. I want to be present in the schools and in the community. ... We have to foster relationships with teachers in the district,” he said.

Chambers said he already has held a principals meeting and intends to work with educators, county commissioners, community leaders and parents moving forward.

He said he has talked with School Board members and all have been supportive of his new role.

“I have a great relationship with a number of the board members,” said Chambers, who added that he wants to be able to work well with all of them.

The new superintendent said he intends to answer media questions himself and will also rely on Steve Horton, the assistant superintendent of MIS, to provide comments. He said he is eager to strengthen ties to the news media that had become strained during Jackson’s tenure.

“We had a great relationship with the Daily News in the past and we very much want to get back there,” Chambers said.

Chambers role as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction was expanded to include human resources in February when then assistant superintendent Stacie Smith was arrested for failing to report child abuse and subsequently resigned.

He said a big part of his job as head of human resources was clarifying the roles the Department of Children and Families, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the School District played in reporting and investigating possible child abuse.

Chambers said communication between the School District and DCF has been “re-established,” and district officials have been advised that their role in a child abuse investigation comes after the child welfare personnel and Sheriff’s Office have completed their own inquiries.

“We know when there is an investigation,” he said. “Our knowing the outcome is not necessary.”

Principals have been instructed about reporting possible child abuse, as is mandated by state law, Chambers said.

“We’ve talked to the principals about reporting and the anonymity attached to it,” he said. “They’ve been instructed if something happens at a school our first contact is DCF, then the sheriff and the third contact is HR.”

Educators are now receiving training in child abuse and reporting child abuse at the time they are hired and annually thereafter, Chambers said.

“They know that the safety of the student is first and foremost,” he said.

Many of the changes in procedure were implemented at the request of the grand jury that investigated district dysfunction under Jackson’s leadership.

Chambers’ leadership under fire was tested the Monday after he took the job. A Baker teacher, it was learned, had resigned after parents reported he’d engaged in an inappropriate sexually charged discussion with eighth- and ninth-grade students.

The School District provided requested information on the incident and confirmed that Baker’s principal was also under investigation following a complaint he had not reacted quickly when notified of the teacher’s actions.

Matthew Pellegrino, a Tallahassee-based investigator and former FBI agent, conducted the inquiry into the actions of the Baker teacher. He is the same investigator Jackson hired last year to look into allegations that former School District spokesman Henry Kelley had violated public records laws.

Chambers said Steve Chapman remains the School District’s sole investigator, but that Pellegrino will be contracted out as Chapman’s caseload warrants.

Chambers said he has no immediate plans for personnel moves within the School District other than hiring someone to replace him as assistant superintendent over curriculum and instruction and finding a new director of human resources.

Highlighting and improving educational opportunities for college-bound as well as vocational students will be goals of the School District under his tutelage, Chambers said, as will be surviving the challenge of maintaining one of the state’s best school systems within a crumbling infrastructure.

Communication with the world outside the district will be key to meeting these goals, he said.

“We do a great job of educating our students, and we have a long legacy of that,” he said. “We do as good a job as we can in our aging facilities with the dollars we have, but we do need to do something. It’s important we do a good job of outlining our priorities. We know what our needs are and we need to articulate those.”

Sansom, who likely will be Chambers’ chief competition for the superintendent’s job in 2020, has already attempted to tie him to the scandal-ridden Jackson regime in which he was second in command. Chambers said he understands that criticism but insists he learned of the child abuse allegations that led to Jackson’s downfall the day they were first publicly reported.

"I had no involvement in what occurred. I believe I literally found out the day it was in the paper," he said. "I’m not sure what that says about the leadership at the time. All I can say is that moving forward we’ll handle things the right way."