The Franklin County School Board Thursday unanimously approved the hiring of Eric Bidwell to succeed George Oehlert as the principal over the consolidated kindergarten through 12th grade school.

Bidwell, 43, who has been assistant principal at the school, began in the new position April 5. Oehlert is retiring after four years at the helm of the school.

Bidwell addressed the board briefly, thanking them for the appointment and extending his gratitude for the support of both Oehlert and Al London, the former school psychologist who now works as an administrator at the district office.

“The teachers have been very positive in the role I played over the past couple years,” said Bidwell. “I look forward to it being a new era. We’re going to continue to improve and continue the things we started. I think from here on out, things are going to move in a positive direction. We’re going to certainly focus on student achievement and it is going to be a team effort.”

A Wewahitchka native, Bidwell earned bachelors and masters degrees from the University of West Florida and in 2009, after teaching at Gulf Coast State College, came to Franklin County High School as an English teacher and then became assistant principal this year.

In his remarks, Bidwell alluded to the Florida Rural Turnaround Project that he discussed at length with the board last month.

“It targets struggling school systems, mostly academically,” said Bidwell.

Paid for by a federal grant, the project has brought together state leaders with teachers, administrators and community members to take a look at both the short and long-term futures of the district.

“We took the vision statement and we talked about what that would look like in five years,” said Bidwell. “We were tasked with three main goals we felt we could achieve in a four-year project.”

He said the district is targeting third grade math performance, and middle school and 10th grade reading scores, and is doing so in conjunction with the Apalachicola Bay Charter School.

“It makes sure that someone is specifically responsible for each of those goals. It gives points of growth and it gets specific as to how much improvement we’re going to make each year.

“The good thing for us is we're ahead of the game. We know how to manipulate the data,” said Bidwell. “It’s going to take the place of all our school improvement plans and combine them all into one. It’s very important for our district and it’s very important for the academic growth of our students.”

School board member Pam Shiver, who has taken an active role in the project, voiced strong support for it at last week’s meeting.

“I’m really excited about this program,” she said. “It is checks and balances, and the children are going to receive a better education. We’re going to use data to stay on top of it.  I’m really excited about what this is going to do. It is going to hold everybody accountable.”

Shiver noted that the focus is on ensuring that education goes beyond mere testing, but makes sure students are ready for college or career when they graduate.

“They (education leaders) have spent years collecting data and putting this all together just so we can plug the holes in our bucket so to speak,” she said. “I think it’s the best thing for our students. Some of the process is going to be painful for some people but I believe it’s for the good of the children and we need to work together to make it happen.”

In other personnel changes, the school board accepted the retirements of three teachers and the resignation of a fourth. Retiring were elementary school teachers Catherine Creamer and Linda Gibson, as well as high school teacher Melissa Cumbie. High school ESE teacher Laura Baney plans to resign at the end of the school year.

To underscore some of the challenges facing the district, the board members were given a spread sheet prepared by Superintendent Nina Marks that charted student withdrawals from the district dating back to last year.

The data showed that withdrawals have slowed since the beginning of the year, to about 12 per month. The reasons mainly cited were either transfers to the Learning Academy or ABC School, to other districts either in or out of state, or to home schooling. The 2012 numbers showed a much-higher monthly average of students leaving the district.

Led by David Hinton and George Thompson, the board members voiced displeasure at the trend of students leaving the district. Hinton said he was troubled by students who left to attend school in Gulf County, even though their families continued to live in Franklin County. Many of these students are able to do so because their families own property in Gulf County, but they often do not change their actual place of residence.

“They rent locations over there and they have power bills and that’s basically what the school allows,” said Chairman Jimmy Gander. “I don’t how you can vote and take homestead exemption in one county and consider yourself a resident of another county.”

Thompson said the district needs to look within to find solutions. “Nobody hates it worse than I do, but until we change our school, that (Gulf) is an A school, this is a C school, and there’s a difference. If they took it to courtroom they’d say ‘school choice,” he said. “Until we get ours to an A school it's going to happen. We have employees that don’t even have their kids in our school.”

Hinton talked glowingly of the success of several of his former students, one an auditor for the state of Florida for schools, and the other a professor at the University of Chicago.

“I agree with what you’re saying Mr. Hinton,” said Gander. “I talked to somebody today and I used every argument I knew, the same argument that you’re using, to try to get them not to leave.

“(But) that’s not what we’re dealing with,” he said. “We’re dealing with the perception that people are going for a certain reason and until you change that perception it doesn’t really matter. We can all sit around here and pat ourselves on the back and say what a good job we’re doing, and we may be, but if nobody else is buying it, it doesn’t really matter.”