Board of Education candidates stepped carefully around a series of pointed questions from citizens at the Oconee County candidate forum last week, which might not be surprising given that two of the three candidates present as well as two others in the audience are engaged in discussions about an open position on the board.
The Board of Education is scheduled to take up that vacancy at its regular meeting, scheduled to start at 5 p.m. Monday night at the central office board room on School street in Watkinsville.
Incumbent Post 3 BOE member Kim Argo, who participated in the forum, could be voting at that meeting Monday on whether to appoint Carter Strickland, another of the forum participants, to the open slot on the Board. Board member Mike Hunter and Board Chairman David Weeks were in the audience.
Citizens asked about the recent replacement of top school administrators, whether the board was cutting administration adequately given the cuts to teaching, and what the board in the future will do to make sure schools are sited properly.
The language used by the citizens was direct.
The responses from the candidates were guarded.
Citizen Robert Wyatt said that “To the outsider, there seems to have been a lot of turmoil and turnover in the Oconee County school system in the past two years,” which is the time when the current Board of Education has held power.
Wyatt gave as evidence “the flap over increased compensation for board members, the land purchase and new superintendents and principals.”
“What do you see as the cause,” Wyatt asked, “and how would you go about fixing it?”
Argo, incumbent Post 3 BOE member, said the administrative turnover had been normal. She acknowledged that “there has been some turmoil,” but she said it also was normal for five members to have some disagreement. She said she had learned from the experience.
Carter Strickland said he thought the problem was that there was not enough disagreement. “They vote as a bloc. There doesn’t seem to be any discussion on issues that I can tell.”
“Some of the things that have been done brought me to a boil,” Strickland said, “and that is why I’m here.”
Strickland said the problem has been “ineffective leadership by the board–not by all members of the board--but by some members of the board.”
Thomas “said people moving and changing jobs” was to be expected. He said, however, he would commit himself to “open communication with the teachers, the administrators, the students and the parents and have everybody part of this process.”
If there is turmoil, Thomas said, the solutions will be much easier if all of these people are involved.
Post 5 BOE member Tom Breedlove resigned on May 10, and, at a specially called meeting on May 19, BOE members Weeks, Argo and Hunter, along with incumbent Post 2 member Mack Guest, decided to invite the four candidates who have filed for Democratic and Republican primaries on July 20 to apply for the Post 5 position Breedlove vacated.
So Guest and Argo were inviting themselves to apply, along with Strickland and Thomas.
Thomas, who had filed to run against Guest in the Republican primary, and Guest himself, subsequently declined.
Guest, who said in advance he could not attend the forum, which Russ Page and I organized, because he had to be out of town on business, was not at the session on Wednesday.
Argo, who is unopposed in the Republican primary and, unless someone files as an independent, in the general election in November as well, also declined to apply for the open spot.
Strickland, running unopposed as a Democrat in the July 20 primary, said he was interested.
Strickland told me on June 7–two days before the candidate forum–that his reason for applying was quite simple.
He said he is a Democrat in a heavily Republican county, yet he really wants to be on the board. He said he’d take the appointment if it is offered to him.
Pam Hendrix, another citizen who asked a question at the forum, also was pretty sharp in her criticism of the board, which has announced teacher furloughs as part of its Fiscal Year 2011 budget. The board is scheduled to vote on Monday night on that budget as well as deal with the Breedlove vacancy.
“I’m kind of tired of hearing we need to cut teachers,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like anyone ever considers cutting administration costs.”
Thomas said administrative operations need to be evaluated. Argo said she favored cutting administrative costs rather than spending for the classroom. Strickland said there should be “no sacred cows” when it comes to cost cutting.
Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank, said “there have been allegations in the past that previous school boards have made siting decisions on schools” without considering the total costs to county tax payers.
He wanted to know if the school board candidats would give consideration to existing county infrastructure and costs to taxpayers rather than simple academic goals when it considered future school locations.
All three said county infrastructure should dictate where future schools go.