Roots Run Deep

Tricia and I enjoy having deep roots in Okaloosa County. My mom, Joann, and my dad, Charles, Sr., moved to Fort Walton Beach in 1956. My dad worked for Bay Furniture for forty years and has been an ordained minister for 70 years. At the age of 87, he still works in ministry. Many people have told me that they bought their furniture from my dad, as it was one of the only furniture stores in town.

My mom did not work outside the home. She raised my three brothers, my sister and me while my dad always held down two jobs. The “three boys”, are the youngest and we all graduated from Choctaw.

Tricia’s parents moved to Fort Walton Beach in 1965. Her dad, Don Raimey, managed a plumbing supply company and her mom, Lea Raimey, worked for Long Insurance. Tricia, her brother and her sister all graduated from Choctaw as well.

Tricia and I both attended Elliott Point Elementary, Meigs Junior High and Choctaw together. My mom passed away in 1995 and Tricia’s dad passed away at the age of 96, in 2018.

It started in the fourth grade…

It may sound odd to say that I met my wife in the fourth grade, but it is true. We were in Mrs. Armstrong’s class at Elliott Point Elementary. We were friends until we attended a dance together in the seventh grade. We got “married” at the wedding booth and slow danced. The rest is history. Friendship grew into love, and that love led to our marriage right after college.

As I think back, I realize that the friendship that Tricia and I shared was a common thread throughout our years in the Okaloosa County School District. We were involved in our schools together, and we felt honored to be part of something bigger than we were. We learned much more than academics there. We were developing into young adults.

When the football coach at Choctaw, the late Eddie Feeley, would approach the microphone at the pep rallies, you could hear a pin drop. He would talk to us about “intangibles.” Anyone who went to a pep rally during that time can attest to this. He talked about taking pride in your school, your job and your family. He talked about excellence and purpose. Throughout the years his words have stayed with Tricia and me.

Will she be okay with this dream?

Tricia and I had always supported each other in pursuing our dreams. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I had no idea how I would get there. It wasn’t a normal job that I was seeking—and it was one that would significantly change my life. Tricia would have to be on board because it would change her life, too.

I broke the news that I wanted to run for public office. We had basically grown up together, been best friends who fell in love, and I had never, ever mentioned this to her. Maybe, it was because I didn’t know it myself. I just knew that I loved this community, and I had a desire to be a small part of charting the course for our future. Of course, Tricia was surprised. Her quiet, kind-of-shy husband wanted to put his name on a ballot and let people publicly accept him or reject him. What a nightmare!!

Three little girls…

In 1989, Tricia was teaching math at Ruckel Middle School and, I was a legislative aide for Senator Vince Bruner. Our first daughter, Jessica, was born that year. In 1992, I campaigned and won a seat on the Okaloosa County Commission. I was 30 years old. During my first term, we had two more daughters, Carlee and Julia. I was so thankful! It was a joy to serve my community and to be raising our family here.

The County Commission Days…

Just before I was elected to the Commission, the county Emergency Management (EMS) Department was being investigated for mismanagement. The State Attorney had convened a grand jury to investigate the management of our EMS and the county government in general.

The day that I was sworn in and attended my first meeting, I was elected to chair the Commission. One of my first duties was to assign each Commissioner be a liaison to a specific department. I decided to assign myself to work with the EMS Department because I felt that it was my duty as the chair to work closest to the greatest need.

To get a first-hand look at their issues and the challenges that they faced daily on the job, I began to occasionally ride with the EMS in the ambulances or with the shift commander. We had to do a clean sweep of the senior leadership positions within the department in order to build trust and confidence with the public and healthcare providers. Four years later the Okaloosa County EMS Department was honored with a national award for being the best in the nation.

Through this experience I learned several important lessons. I learned that below the EMS senior leadership level, there were many hard working, brave and dedicated people who felt called to do this tough job. They needed a lot of support and stability from the county leadership. They needed to be well-trained and confident that, if they followed the rules set forth, they would be backed up. I realized that I could not rely on what I heard about a situation; I had to get in there and see it for myself and, as much as possible, walk in their shoes.

I also learned something about myself. I was young, but I learned that I enjoy the challenge of casting a new vision for an organization. I even enjoy making the tough decisions that are necessary to bring it back to health. That challenge continues to shape my life.

The Florida Legislature

When I was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2002, I had been working for the Okaloosa County School District as the Director of Community Affairs, and I was serving as the Executive Director of the Okaloosa Schools Foundation. During the campaign, I had promised that the first bill that I would file would be to correct the unfair school funding formula that put Okaloosa County at the bottom for per student dollars allocated from the state Legislature.

It quickly became the focus of that legislative session, and it was the most intense battle to fight with Miami legislators. I was just a freshman legislator, but this was such an important issue for the Okaloosa County School District that I knew that I had to dive in, learn quickly and fight to get our fair share of education dollars.

Funny Story: One day on the House Floor, a Miami legislator walked up to me, chest bumped me and asked me what I thought I was doing, messing with the funding formula. (Miami was at the top.) I was shocked but quickly retorted that we could do it the right way or we could just take care of it “Panhandle style.” To this day, I am not really sure what that means but it worked at the time. My colleague from Miami laughed and said that we were going to get along just fine! We have been friends ever since.

To explain what an uphill battle this was, just think about all of the smaller, less populated counties in Florida receiving fewer dollars per student for schools than the highly-populated larger counties with more powerful legislators. We were fighting over money for our schools, and it was time for the medium to small counties to get what they deserved.

I decided to tackle this with two strategies. I spent a lot of time with legislators from the medium to small counties, informing them of how the funding formula for Florida schools was unfairly affecting their school districts. Second, I spent time with the Speaker of the House, who graciously allowed this to become a key issue that session. I have to say that even though I was participating in my first session as a legislator, he listened and thought it had merritt.

Fast forward to 2007 when I was appointed to be the House Budget Chair for the entire state. It was important to me to fund education in Florida well, and we were able to develop one of the best education budgets to date. At this time, I was also the Speaker Designate and in 2008, had the honor of becoming the first Speaker of the House from Okaloosa County.

My days in the Legislature are full of memories of working very hard, working long hours and making some amazing friends. I was fortunate to have a group of colleagues who entered the Legislature at the sametime that I did. We called ourselves “The Work Group.” I learned so much from each of them, and we keep in touch and remain friends today. I also learned, once again, that I enjoy tackling tough issues and that to really lead, you must have no fear.

Turning things around

I had gone back to school in the early 1990s to earn my Masters of Educational Leadership degree.  In 2010, when I went to work as a Dean of Discipline at a charter dropout prevention school, I felt like I was back in school because I was learning so much each day.  These were students who, for various reasons, had been placed in an alternative school. Extreme behavior issues or getting behind in class credits were two of the several possibilities for their placements.

I found myself observing the rhythm of the school day.  When did the behavior issues occur? Where could we provide more structure?  How would our students respond to that structure? I wanted to provide solutions to the problems that seemed to be occurring in a repetitive pattern.  As I did my job, I made mental notes about some strategies I would try if I were leading a school like this.

The next year I got my chance.  I was sent to a school that was on the brink of failing.  I was really there to bring the inevitable closure in for a landing.  The school was chaotic. There was no Dean of Discipline, students felt that they had no boundaries, and the teachers were just surviving.

There were only a few months until the summer break, but I began by creating some structures and clear boundaries for students from my mental notes.  I stood at the bus ramp every day and shook students’ hands as they exited the busses to come on campus. Any students who were already causing problems were sent to the office for their parents to be notified to come pick them up.  I spent the rest of the day going into classrooms, talking directly to the students about the new expectations.

A few months later, as the school year came to a close, I knew that this school had potential.  I went to the School Board meeting and talked to the board members about what I saw. I asked them for one school year to prove that this school could become a legitimate place of education. They granted the one year and my boss, Dr. Rader, allowed me the latitude to develop a vision for this school.

I hired back less than half of the staff and faculty. As we assembled our new team, we established a goal that we would get to the point where academics would become our concern, instead of just surviving each chaotic day. That summer was spent cleaning up the school itself and getting ready for a new day where we would offer students who were in jeopardy of dropping out a real chance to get a diploma.

The story ended with a successful school year.  The school board extended our contract for ten years. Dr. Rader approached me about duplicating our success story at the other five schools managed by the Rader Group.  He promoted me to Vice-President of School Administration. I still oversee six dropout prevention schools. Seeing potential, creating a vision and working to bring the vision to reality has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.  I will always appreciate the opportunity that Dr. Rader gave me to realize my vision.

EDUCATION

– Ed.S.(Eductional Specialist)  Educational Leadership  Liberty University

– M. Ed. (Masters Degree) Educational Leadership University of West Florida- B.S. Political Science Florida State University

– A.A. Okaloosa-Walton Junior College

ELECTED OFFICE

– Florida House of Representatives 2002-2010

-Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives 2008 (First Speaker from Okaloosa County in states history)

– Budget Chair and Speaker Designate 2006-2008

– Okaloosa County Commissioner 1992-2000

– Chair 1993,94,95,98 (youngest chair in Okaloosa County history)

– President of Okaloosa Republican Club 1989

EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE

– Vice-President of School Administration

– Manage 6 different Dropout Prevention schools in Okaloosa, Walton, Santa Rosa counties and provide education to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice programs (2014-curently)

– School Principal, Learning Academy of Santa Rosa County (2010-2013)

– Director of Community Affairs and Executive Director of the Okaloosa Public Schools Foundation for the Okaloosa School District (2001-2007)