An Intensive After School Academy grant from the Florida Department of Education through federal funding is the cause of a fracture in the usually solid Washington County School Board.

In the fall of 2022, the school board unanimously voted to accept a $397,000 grant to fund Saturday school and to pay the teachers and paraprofessionals who wished to staff the extra day of learning. All of the school board members at the time were on board with the idea of giving students extra opportunities to earn the credits needed to graduate.

However, when the matter was brought before the board in the February meeting, the way it was presented was a little different than it was previously. Director of Federal Programs for WCSB Jiranda White addressed the board with the new way the district planned to spend the funds. 

“This is an innovative program where, let me be clear, the children are not being paid to attend, they are being paid to be peer tutors,†White said. “Where they can accelerate and graduate.â€

“How much will they be paid?,†asked Cindy Brown.

“$15 an hour,†White responded.

“So, every child that attends will be paid $15 an hour?†Tonka Taylor asked.

“Yes, every child that attends will be paid that amount,†White answered.

“Is this an amendment to what we approved before?†asked Taylor.

“This is an adjustment to the language we had before,†White said. “This money has been targeted for the reluctant students who don’t come to school or do well. We are trying to support them.â€

“I’m not trying to sound negative but how is a diploma not enough initiative to come to class?†Taylor said.

White responded by saying that district leaders sat around and discussed the same sentiment that a diploma should be enough. However, when trying to figure out a way to have children come to school, the district leaders wanted to try something new and innovative.

Taylor brought up the fact that other students who are doing the work and not failing are not being paid, but the students who don’t show up can come to school on Saturdays and get paid. He asked what kind of message that sent.

According to White, district officials made the decision to find a way to bring reluctant students to school and get them educated. Other students can take part in the K-3 reading program and be tutors at the elementary school and be paid $10 per hour.

Thus far, 30 students have been identified at Chipley High School and 25 at Vernon High School. The subjects that will be taught are ACT prep math, ACT prep reading and self-discipline. The students will be fed breakfast and lunch as well as earning $15 per hour.

The vote in the February meeting was 4-1 with Taylor being the sole no vote.

The idea of paying students has caused a stir with board members and in the community.

Mil Cox wrote in a letter to the editor of the Washington County News, “While our teachers are providing many supplies out of pocket and our involved and motivated students are pleading for money to be able to continue their competitions at a national level, it doesn’t make sense to me at all to pay students who chose not to attend class or school.â€

In the board’s March meeting, an agenda item to pay a school resource officer to work Saturday school was up for a vote. Taylor seconded the motion for approval of the issue in order to open up discussion. 

“What happens if we vote no to hiring a SRO? Does Saturday school shut down?†Taylor asked.

Superintendent Joe Taylor said if school is in session, a SRO is required to be on campus. 

“I was all for Saturday school when we weren’t going to pay the students,†said Taylor. “I am all about paying the law enforcement but I cannot get behind paying students to go to school. When they brought in the amendment to pay the students is where all of this got messed up. The wool was pulled over our eyes.â€

School Board Attorney Matt Fuqua advised the board that it is too late to set aside the grant because they had hired the teachers last month, but would possibly be able to set it aside for the next school year.

The board was split 3-2 on the vote with Taylor and Brown both objecting to hiring the SRO due in fact to the amended grant to pay the students.

The Washington County News will continue to follow this story as it progresses.