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FORT WALTON BEACH — The most surprising element of Monday’s live political forum may have been Okaloosa County Commission candidate Parker Destin announcing his plan to forego an annual salary if elected.
The least surprising could well have been that, when finally given a chance to share a stage, School Superintendent Marcus Chambers and his opponent, Ray Sansom, would sling a little mud in one another’s direction.
Destin, a Destin city councilman who is running against state Rep. Mel Ponder and business man Rich Johnson for the District 5 commission seat, pledged to put half of his approximately $100,000 salary as a commissioner toward the sheriff’s office. The other half, he said, would go toward infrastructure funding.
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"In 2021 we’re going to likely have to make very deep cuts to our budget, affecting personnel and projects," he said. "I’m going to walk the walk and personally participate in the budget process. I’m going to lead from the front and hope to have support ... I’m not going to take a salary."
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Ponder focused on his four-point platform of family, faith, freedom and forward and Johnson said he will focus on jobs, infrastructure and fiscal responsibility.
Knowing that Sansom would bring up his close working relationship to former Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, and allegations that he should have known as a school administrator about child abuse within the district’s special education program, Chambers touched on the topic first Monday.
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"What happened was unacceptable. What was also unacceptable was that the superintendent didn’t take action. The information was available but wasn’t acted upon."
Jackson was suspended by the governor and later resigned after an ESE teacher, a school district investigator, a formal principal and the district’s human resources director were arrested on charges resulting from child abuse against an autistic student and an apparent cover up.
Chambers headed the district’s ESE program at the time and Sansom claims he should have known what was going on. Chambers contends he was never aware of the abuse and the investigation that followed until he read about it in the newspaper.
"No one who is paid over $100,000 a year to oversee special needs should not have known," Sansom said. "If he didn’t know it’s a failure on the job ... he should have been the one telling people what was going on."
Chambers fired back by bringing up Sansom’s tarnished record of service as a state representative, which came to an abrupt halt when he was arrested and charged with misappropriating state funds. Sansom was acquitted of the charge and later awarded attorney’s fees from the prosecution.
"There’s only one person on this stage who hasn’t been arrested, there’s only one person who hasn’t been indicted and accused of grand theft, and that’s me," Chambers said.
Also participating in Monday’s event were Sherri Cox and Marti Gardner, who are running for District 2 School Board seat.
Cox, who has worked locally for the Republican Party, touted her conservative views on governing and boasted of opposition she’d faced from the county’s teacher’s union when she came out in support of arming some school staff.
Gardner spoke of the endorsement she’s received from the teacher’s union as well as the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors.