NICEVILLE —The parking lot of the Emerald Coast Marine Center was packed beyond full, as were the lots of several other nearby businesses.

Clearly Superintendent Marcus Chambers' announcement that he would seek a four-year term in the role he'd been appointed to in January resonated throughout Okaloosa County.

"I think a lot of it is due to the problems we've had, especially with the former superintendent," said Niceville resident and elected Republican official Steve Czonstka. "I think the office has been one of turbulence and questionable decision making for awhile."

With hundreds of friends, neighbors and local politicians packed in at The Local's Eatery on John Sims Parkway, Chambers stood off to the side of the stage, quietly watching the crowd and listening as former students heaped praise upon him.

 "I am humbled, I am honored to see so many people have come out to support me," he said.

Chambers, who was appointed as superintendent in January following the governor’s suspension of former superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, bided his time before announcing his candidacy. He said he'd held off until he could get a firm grip on issues facing the district.

“My focus has been on students, employees and meeting with parents all across the district. I wanted to get an understanding of what we could do better,” he said. “But now I feel the time is right to announce my candidacy for superintendent.”

The announcement was made with First District U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach in attendance.

“I’ve known Marcus Chambers for many years as a leader in the education community. He’s been a fantastic principal at Pryor Middle School and Niceville High School and it’s easy to see why Gov. DeSantis has so much confidence in him,” Gaetz said. “In a short period of time since becoming superintendent he has changed policies and practices regarding student safety … I’ve seen the type of reform and change out of Marcus that I’d hoped for and I’m excited about a rally to launch his campaign.”

Chambers said while he is grateful for Gaetz’s support, he has been equally encouraged by the sheer volume of people from all over the county who have urged him to seek a 4-year term as school superintendent.

He said he’s got three main reasons for running, the first being his intention to restore the reputation of the School District to its rightful station among the best in the state.

“Since this district was founded in 1915 it has carried a great legacy of teachers, administrators and students. This district has always been a leader in Florida and we’re starting to get some of that pride back in our schools,” he said.

He said his second reason for running is his belief in the students of the district who have shone academically, in extracurricular activities like band and chorus and on the sports field.

His final reason for running, he said, is his belief in the impact on education the district’s teachers, staff and administration can make. He said he wants to better the working environment for employees of the district.

“What I’ll be running on is safer, stronger, schools,” he said.

Along with increasing school safety by “hardening” district schools and advocating “harm mitigation” and focusing on mental health issues, Chambers said, he’ll be seeking to improve the educational infrastructure.

“I want our facilities to match the quality of our educators, staff and administration,” he said. “I want to provide a vision for what our next generation of schools will look like.”

Another area of safety, Chambers said, is the School District’s declaration that it will not tolerate the abuse of students. Eight district educators or administrators have been arrested since 2017 on child abuse-related charges.

Chambers contends only a small minority of the 3,000 Okaloosa County educators have made “poor choices” that have led to students being harmed.

“The overwhelming majority of teachers wake up each and every day with the idea of doing what’s best for their students,” he said. “We will hold accountable the small percentage who make poor choices and be transparent in doing so.”

It is clear as he enters the political fray alongside two challengers, a big issue Chambers will face in the campaign is his relationship to his predecessor, Jackson, and the child abuse charges that have stained the district.

“Marcus was directly in charge of the special needs department that saw eight people arrested and one teacher imprisoned for child abuse,” said Ray Sansom, a charter school administrator and former state representative who entered the superintendent’s race in January.

“Mr. Chambers' answer to the most horrific action in our School District’s history, when a child with special needs was abused by his teacher, was ‘I had no involvement in what occurred. I believe I literally found out the day it was in the paper,’ ” Sansom said.

Another newcomer to the superintendent’s race, Christopher Tillis, said he’s running on a ticket of cleaning house within the entire School District and said he will advocate for a forensic audit.

“I’m sick of the corruption and wastefulness of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We were good financially prior to the Jackson administration and Chambers and the School Board seem to not want to order a forensic audit. I want to know where the money went and as school superintendent I would clean house and be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.”

Tillis said he’s got no more confidence in Sansom as superintendent than he does Chambers.

Chambers said his focus during the political campaign will be on students and not on his opponents.

 “Our School District needs experience, expertise, strength, determination and, most importantly, a willingness to work with our parents, communities and schools,” he said. “I believe I possess the leadership to accomplish just that.”