Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Oconee County BOE Candidates Differ on Assessment of School Board and Schools

Nature of Change the Issue

Carter Strickland and Mark Thomas are offering Oconee County voters distinctive choices for the Board of Education Post 2 position on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Strickland is critical of the current board, saying it needs to do a better job of listening to the citizens of the county and communicating back to those citizens.

Thomas says he does not have criticisms of the board.

Thomas says the county has “one of the top school systems in the state of Georgia” and the Board of Education must provide support, “thereby assuring our continual improvement.”

Strickland says “the BOE and the county must admit that we do have problems” and the BOE should “strive to be the best school system in the country, not just northeast Georgia.”

Strickland says the BOE should sell immediately the 6.7 acres on North Main street it bought for $900,000 on Dec. 7, 2009–“if there is anyone willing to pay the $900K the taxpayers were forced to pay for it.”

Thomas says: “We need to be good stewards of the assets we have” and, prior to making any decisions about use of the assets, “the school board should accurately assess our current and future needs.”

Thomas, who defeated incumbent Mack Guest in the July 20 Republican primary, says “That the people of Oconee County were obviously in favor of making a change in the membership of the school board” when they selected him.

Strickland agrees that voters tossed out Guest “because they clearly wanted a change.” Strickland adds: “By electing me they have a chance to make that change.”

Despite these and other differences, the candidates have similarities.

Both are self-employed, Thomas as owner of Mark Thomas Enterprises, Inc., a grading and electrical contractor, and Strickland as CEO of OurVarsity, a nationwide distributor of media content management systems.

Both have children in the Oconee County school system.

Neither of them mentions party as a reason to vote for them. Strickland, in fact, considered running as an independent before he filed as a Democrat in April.

Thomas is 50. Strickland is 40.

The man selected on Nov. 2 will be joining a school board made up of three other men and one woman.

Strickland and Thomas appeared together in two candidate forums in June, organized by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and by citizens groups.

And the race was featured in stories in the Athens Banner-Herald and The Oconee Leader this past week.

By 4:55 p.m. on Friday, only 1,804 of the county’s 22,606 registered voters had cast their ballots. Early voting ends at 5 p.m. this Friday.

On Monday evening, I sent to both of the candidates a list of 10 questions, asking them to provide answers to be posted on my blog.

I received the responses from Strickland on Thursday and from Thomas on Friday.

I have uploaded the answers by Strickland and Thomas to my Oconee County Observations site. I formatted the responses but otherwise did no editing.

Thomas added some additional information about himself at the end of the form, and I left the information as he had provided it.

The responses show the differences between Thomas and Strickland highlighted above and some of the similarities.

Strickland has moderated some of his responses from the candidate forums.

At the June 3 forum organized by the Chamber of Commerce, in response to a question about Superintendent John Jackson, Strickland said “if we can get rid of him without having to pay him, let’s get rid of him.”

Thomas said Jackson had a contract and the county did not need a situation where someone was being paid and not working.

And at the June 9 candidate forum , the candidates were asked to comment on “turnover and turmoil in the Oconee County School System in the last two years.”

Thomas said some turnover, at least, was routine, but Strickland said “some of the things that have been done brought me to a boil, and that is why I’m here.”

In response to an invitation from the Board of Education to all the candidates who had filed for either Post 2 or Post 3, Strickland had applied for the then-open Post 5 position. He was the only one who did so.

He subsequently was rejected, the board solicited other applicants, and Wayne Bagley was selected.

Incumbent Post 3 member Kim Argo was the only candidate to file for that slot and will be on the November ballot unopposed.

Thomas has raised $6,437 for his campaign, which included the primary battle with Guest, and spent $5,630, most of it on signs and advertising with the two local weeklies.

Strickland has not raised any money, but he has spent $637 on yard signs, his only campaign expense.

In response to my question about criticism of Superintendent Jackson, Strickland said his “job is not to criticize what has happened in the past but to bring something new to the table.”

“Oconee County needs a visionary who is politically astute, understands how to network and has a strong business background,” he wrote. “We need a person who can look 15 years into the future, understand where we need to be at that date and then has the gumption and skills to take us to that place.”

“I will not become a school board member with preconceived opinions about the performance of the school superintendent or other personnel,” Thomas wrote in his response. “I will evaluate the performance of the staff objectively and address each issue based on the facts presented.”

Thomas responded to a question about the unique characteristics, talents and perspectives he would bring to the Board by saying that he is “willing to listen to ideas and solutions from parents, teachers, administrators, support personnel, students, local citizens, and local organizations...I will communicate, cooperate, and coordinate with my colleagues.”

Strickland said he would bring outside perspectives to the board. “I have lived beyond our borders. I know what is being accomplished in other school systems,” he said. “And I know our school system is capable of achieving those great and many things if we have the right leadership.”

Thomas said voters should select him on Nov. 2 because “I have a deep interest in our school system... I am a life long resident and my family has been in Oconee County for several generations.”

“The students, teachers, administrators and parents have created a legacy of excellence in our schools,” Thomas continued. “The school board serves as a steward of that legacy. Let us preserve this tradition of excellence by voting for me.”

“The public should vote for me because the current board doesn’t want me in there,” Strickland said in response to the same question.

“I’m different. I’m new. I’m transparent. I’m not afraid to admit when I am wrong. I’m in this for you and your kids.”