Mark Mullins was scraping ice off the windshield of his future wife’s car on a cold Chicago morning when she asked him:
“Do you think we could live in Florida after we’re married?”
Mullins, who loves to tell this story, says he replied: “Let me go get my stuff.”
That question led not only to a move to Indialantic some 25 years ago, but also to an accomplished career with Brevard Public Schools. Mullins was named superintendent of schools in August, taking the helm of the 10th largest school district in the state and the 49th largest in the country.
He started his career in education in 1994 as a math teacher and soccer coach at Cocoa Beach Junior/Senior High School, then went on to be assistant principal at Palm Bay High School and principal at Clearlake Middle School before moving to the district level as an area superintendent in July 2010, a position that no longer exists. Most recently he was a deputy superintendent and chief operations officer for the district before taking over the top job when Desmond Blackburn resigned to work in the private sector.
“It is very unique and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity, and stay where my heart is and serve the community that captured my heart 24 years ago when I started teaching,” Mullins said.
The Melbourne Beachsider spoke with Mullins during a recent visit to Gemini Elementary. His wife Laurel, maiden name Larsen, was raised in Melbourne Beach and attended Gemini from kindergarten through sixth grade. She, along with other Gemini students, helped create the iconic mosaic tile mural inside the school that depicts the Gemini space program.
The couple moved to Melbourne Beach three years ago after living in Indialantic for 22 years.
Gemini, along with Sea Park Elementary in Satellite Beach, struggled with declining enrollment after the shutdown of the space shuttle program and the recession and housing crisis a decade ago. Enrollment is up again at both schools, but Mullins said the district, much like any other organization or business, rides the tide of the economy.
“We’re all experiencing the benefits of a strong economy and growth and business growth and everything that comes with that – young families, a younger workforce, coming into the area bringing children with them,” he said. “So I think certainly the horizon, the landscape, looking forward is very good for all of our schools.”
Some schools, such as Delaura Middle, which now has more than 800 students, have grown faster than others. The idea of building a middle school in Viera to take some of the strain off Delaura and other schools has been discussed several times, but Mullins said there is currently no plan to do so.
Mullins also discussed school security. While nearly all beachside schools are covered by local law enforcement agencies, 30 educational sites in the county are still without a school resource officer. Those schools are currently being secured by off-duty police officers until full-time security guards can be trained. The school board’s goal is that ultimately all 89 sites will have full-time SROs. Mullins said that once that is accomplished, the security guards will supplement security where needed.
The School Board opted not to arm teachers, but with new blood coming in after the November elections that issue could be re-introduced.
Mullins wouldn’t say where he stands on arming teachers. “Ultimately, it’s up to the board,” he said.
BPS has put a strong emphasis in recent years on mental health, suicide prevention and anti-bullying campaigns. Mullins plans to continue those efforts.
“I think we can always do more,” he said. “The reality is that kids come to us with a lot of unknown circumstances. We don’t always understand how that’s going to impact a child. I call it ‘the things in the backpack we don’t see.’”
Teacher salaries are another hot-button issue for the district. Board members and district officials, as well as the teachers’ union, repeatedly say BPS needs to do more to pay teachers on a higher scale.
“Where will the money come for higher teacher salaries? That’s a tough one and will continue to be,” Mullins said.
“The priority is the recruitment and retention of the best work force, and obviously compensation is a part of that. I’d love for us to be able to get to the point where we lead the way.”
But he said the district also has to look at other ways to retain teachers besides just higher salaries. Some of those might be working with local agencies and corporate partners to offer information and programs to attract and keep teachers.
As chief operating officer, Mullins was in charge of reviewing every department to see where internal cost savings could be found. He cited $800,000 saved last year by reviewing bus routes throughout the county, for example. He plans to continue to lead the charge to find other places where money can be saved.
“That’ll be a proven practice that we’ll utilize going forward,” he said. “Are there big-ticket wins? We haven’t found those yet.”
Mullins added that teacher pay, and all other budget items, are a matter of prioritizing and sometimes that’s a difficult process.
“There’s always going to be something we can’t do,” he said.
Mullins also plans to continue the strategic plan initiated by Blackburn, along with the strong community partnerships with local industries, especially in the space, aviation and tech sectors.
“Brevard County provides the opportunity for us as citizens (and) residents, but even more for our kids, the opportunity to explore space, to explore land and to explore sea,” he said.
Mullins’ own three children attended Indialantic Elementary, Hoover Middle School and Melbourne High. He appreciates the sense of community beachside.
“I think in any community, it’s about the neighborhood in which you raise your family, and certainly that’s been our experience,” he said. “We enjoyed not only raising the kids in our home but in our neighborhood and having those extended relationships.”
One of his favorite things about living beachside? Walking to the river to enjoy the sunset with his wife, often joined by neighbors and friends.
“We feel very blessed to be able to have that opportunity,” he said. “I believe we live in a very special, unique place.”