Switching to a charter school system is among options Panama City leaders are considering

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Panama City schools are facing a problem that goes beyond the classroom.

In an October 2019 report, Panama City schools are shown to be under-performing compared to other Bay County schools. Now city leaders are considering options for a "radical" change. (WJHG/WECP)

"I got to tell you I don't know what the answer is but I think it's going to have to be radical," said Panama City Commissioner Jenna Haligas.

Now city leaders say they are evaluating every option for the future of their children.

"I mean there has been conversation about a charter school and making the city a charter school system," said City Manager Mark McQueen.

According to an October 2019 report, Panama City schools are underperforming compared to other schools in Bay County. Another chart in the same report shows charter schools outperformed public schools in the 2017-2018 school year.

Panama City lawyer and father of four, William Harrison, gives the idea a passing grade.

"What I think is the best approach today is that the city of Panama City pursue a municipal charter organization of the Bay High family of schools," said Harrison. "And that those schools continue to operate on the campuses, with those teachers, with those administrators, but in an environment that, according to Florida statutes, does not have nearly the weight and the restrictions on a municipal charter organization that for some reason currently exists on traditional public schools."

"Unfortunately it seems that many times they get together, go ahead and make plans and we're excluded from the plans," said Dr. Rufus Wood Jr., president of the Bay County NAACP branch.

City officials say the charter concept is still just an idea that needs more analysis, but Wood is concerned.

"Black students are quite often pushed out of charter schools, and even here locally we've had a lot of problems with some of the charter schools when African American students get in trouble they're some of the first ones that are suspended and are pushed out of the schools," said Wood.

Turning Panama City's public schools into charter schools isn't the only concept under consideration. Other options discussed include allowing city employees paid time to mentor at schools, and hiring an assistant superintendent to work below Bay District Schools' Superintendent Bill Husfelt.

"And Bill was very receptive to this, that we would basically have an assistant superintendent that would be an integral part of the city schools only," said Haligas.

Regardless of opinion, every person we spoke with shared a similar hope for the children of Panama City.

"We need to provide them with all those opportunities and we need them as a resource to come... We need them to come back home," said Harrison.

We reached out to Bay District Schools superintendent Bill Husfelt to comment on this story and we were sent this statement:

"We welcome the assistance of any group, organization or individual who wants to help our students. I believe the City of Panama City wants to help our students and our community continue to recover and we welcome them as partners. I've read the comprehensive report from the firm they hired to assist them and I understand the different options that have been recommended. Our students, and their families, can certainly use all the help they can get right now but I never want to lose sight of the fact that a lack of housing, and the poverty that was present both before and after the storm, are the two biggest challenges facing the teachers, administrators, staff and students at the schools within the Panama City city limits. I look forward to seeing how the city plans to address those issues and I know that any improvements made in the housing situation, and to assist with the impact of generational poverty, will immediately be noticed in our schools."

We'll bring you more details from our research and interviews as we explore various options being considered to improve education in Panama City.

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