Despite charter school opinions, locals say an issue needs to be addressed

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Our story about options to improve Panama City schools has sparked a lot of conversation. We reported about local leaders who say various ideas have been up for discussion, including the idea of converting Panama City's public schools to charter schools.

Panama City and local education leaders say discussions have been had about the possibility of switching the city's public schools to charter schools, along with many other options to improve the city's school system. (WJHG/WECP)

During a press conference Thursday, Bay District Schools superintendent Bill Husfelt addressed our reports.

"But I was told yesterday those conversations had happened," said a WJHG/WECP reporter.

Husfelt said, "not with me". McQueen interjected, "We talked about that last year before the storm" to which Husfelt added, "and I said that, before the storm."

Panama City Commissioner Jenna Haligas said, "You know there was talk before the hurricane and there's certainly been talk after the hurricane because that's when it really was like 'Wow! This was a great time to do something big'".

Haligas says she discussed the charter school option with many leaders, including Superintendent Husfelt, after the storm.

Haligas said, "I ran into him at an event so I spoke to him about it there and then after that I sat down with him to talk about, just you know, about city charters and how that would work or any other options that would work".

Haligas said the charter school issue was also discussed at economic development meetings along with many other options to improve the city's schools.

Alexis Underwood, president of the Association of Bay County Educators, said, "Mr. Husfelt was at some of the planning sessions I attended, as were other members of his senior leadership. I know because I've continued these conversations with him."

Underwood also confirms the charter school issue is one of many options being discussed as possible solutions. "This was a wide ranging conversation," she said.

Underwood believes the answer to improving Panama City schools may not involve charters at all. Instead she says it can be accomplished in public school classrooms, which has been done before.

"We have had a tremendous track record at being able to turn those schools into A and B schools. That's not by accident. That's because we know what we're doing and we know how to do it. That's not to say there's always room for new ideas and new answers and new opportunities," said Underwood.

Panama City lawyer William Harrison is one of several education advocates who wants to explore all options. He points to Tyndall Air Force Base, saying it comprises 34% of the local economy and is a reason to consider the charter conversion.

Harrison said, "One of the requests that came out of a number of local military men and women is that they enjoy the charter schools that are currently across Bay County and unfortunately they have to drive a long ways to drop their children off at school".

Harrison is a father of four and fostered a child with special needs. For him, the issue is personal.

"So when I am in schools like Cedar Grove Elementary, Lucille Moore, Breakfast Point, and I sit through meetings and I sit through classes and I deal with all of those in Bay District Schools that are trying, trying to help her as much as they [can] are the high achieving children, I see the full spectrum of the challenges that we face."

Those challenges are something Haligas doesn't take lightly.

"I intend to put full force to this and do whatever I can to make that happen, to make an excellent school district. Not a better one, not an okay one, but an excellent one," said Haligas.

Regardless of which side people take on the issue, the story we broke has ignited a conversation. Underwood said, "The great thing that came out of this news story is that people that have never been engaged in the conversation are digging into this issue for the benefit of our children."

In addition to responding to our reports in the press conference Thursday, Husfelt also posted about this issue on the district's Facebook page Friday. We will continue to keep you updated as the various options to improve Panama City schools are discussed

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