Q&A with  Jay Wheeler: Hitting the road after 16 years on the School Board

Fiery. Direct.

Passionate. Bombastic.

A lot of adjectives have been used to describe four-term Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler who, due to choosing not to run for re-election this year, will yield his district 1 seat to August election winner Theresa Castillo on Nov. 13.

Wheeler answered some questions with the Osceola News-Gazette to reflect on how Osceola’s schools have changed in the last 16 years, how he worked well – and not so well – with the superintendents and fellow board members who came and went, and where his life should lead him in the future.

News-Gazette: Are you starting to get a little sentimental about leaving the School Board?

Wheeler: No, it’s not like this is a surprise. It’s time for some for some fresh blood to take over. If you told me in 2002 that I’d be doing this for 16 years I’d say you were crazy. I surely didn’t think I’d do it this long.

At the time I was running for County Commission (in 2000), we had some toxic School Board members. When I got on the board I told them in public meetings, “I don’t trust you, don’t respect you,” and they all got taken out. We have board members now who are all in it for all the right reasons and I have been blessed to serve with them.

News-Gazette:  What are your thoughts on (Superintendent) Dr. Debra Pace?

Wheeler: Dr. Pace is unbelievable. My only issue with her is she doesn’t spend enough time with her own family.

News-Gazette: What’s the best part of this school district?

Wheeler: Our diversity is one of our strengths. First thing you tell those folks is, “I believe in you.” All of our segments are different. Celebration, Harmony, Gateway/Parkway, Poinciana, they are districts within a district. We are who we are.

News-Gazette: What was your motivation to initially run for the Board?

Wheeler:  My kids, they went K-12 in Osceola County and had an incredible experience.

News-Gazette:  When you look back on your term, what are some of the district’s biggest accomplishments?

Wheeler:  Under (former Superintendent Michael Grego), we had all “A” and “B” high schools and we never had a “B” (before). That and the expansion of IB (International Baccalaureate) and career training programs, those are some of the things.

One of my biggest regrets is that we didn’t have a pool for student use. There are no county parks west of Hoagland Boulevard.

News-Gazette: What are some of the things you personally did that you’re most proud of?

Wheeler: Expanding IB, getting the district to realize that diversity doesn’t need to be a crutch and that all kids can achieve. It’s been hard, why we call it “school work” and not “school play.” When I came in, we were like a 1-13 team, when we got to 2-12, people were like, ‘Hey, we’re twice as good as we were,’ but I was like, ‘We’re still in last place.’ Now we are a perennial playoff team, but there’s still a ways to go. But we have the right people and leadership in place and the focus is where it needs to be, on kids, and not on toxic board members.  

News-Gazette:  You were kind of a lightning rod during your term in office. Any regrets?

Wheeler:  I did what I though was right. My biggest regret was sending a letter of recommendation to Tallahassee for (former Board member) Cindy Hartig. You learn a lot in 16 years.

I regret I wasn’t able to get us more money. The teachers deserve more money, but in turn they should work 12 months a year. I’ve harped on that people are safer walking into an Orlando Magic game than their kids’ school. I wish we could build more student stations. I wish we weren’t so dependent on charter schools, but we have them. I think we need to steal more talent from other districts.

News-Gazette: What’s your focus going to be going forward?

Wheeler: My family, my business (developing underground refuse systems), and the community. I’m not going anywhere. People still want me to run for office; without prevailing upon my wife, (Laura), I will not consider it. I’m married 29 years and that’s more important than being elected.  

What I want to share is that we’re lucky to have the board we have now. My successor needs to listen and learn from these people, they are smart and in it for the right reason and not for the money. To improve, people have to get out of their comfort zone.

Look for the News-Gazette’s Q&A with Theresa “Terry” Castillo, who beat her opponent to win Wheeler’s seat in the August primary, next week.