Fran Thompson and Andrea Wellnitz, seeking spots on the Oconee County Board of Education, told a packed room of citizens gathered for a candidate forum on Thursday night that they want the Board to be more transparent and more open to citizen input.
Incumbents Kim Argo and Amy Parrish said the Board already is transparent and open to citizens ideas and feedback and they want to make sure the community understands that.
Only slightly less genial was the exchange that followed between incumbent Republican Bill Cowsert and Democrat Marisue Hilliard in the 46th Senate District contest. All of Oconee County is in the 46th, which also includes parts of Walton and Clarke counties.
Considerably less cordial in their comments at the forum organized by The Oconee Enterprise were Democrat Deborah Gonzalez and Republican challenger Houston Gaines in the 117th House District contest, which includes parts of Oconee County.
Gaines was on the attack from his introduction to the end of the forum hosted by the University of North Georgia and stood out among the four legislative candidates by not voicing opposition to a campus carry law passed by the General Assembly last year.
Gaines refused to take a stand for or against repeal of campus carry.
Jonathan Wallace, incumbent Democratic representative from the 119th House District, and Republican challenger Marcus Wiedower did not attend the forum. Those parts of Oconee County not in the 117th are in the 119th House District.
School Board Introductions
Michael Prochaska, editor of the Enterprise and forum moderator, gave each of the school board candidates a chance to introduce herself at the beginning of the two-hour forum, and the issue of Board access came up quickly.
Wellnitz, a social worker, was the fourth to introduce herself, and she told the audience that the reason she is seeking Post 2 on the Board of Education now held by Parrish is because of a concern about access to the Board.
“I’ve heard from so many people in this community because the don’t feel like their voice is really being heard,” she said. “I’ve heard stories of people telling me that they have a question and they’re having a hard time getting an answer to the question.
“I’ve heard people saying they have a concern and they’re not getting an answer,” Wellnitz said.
“I’ve had people say that maybe they have a great idea but they don’t feel like its taken seriously.”
Questions From Audience
Following the introductions, Prochaska took questions from the audience of more than 100 people gathered at the University of North Georgia campus between Butler’s Crossing and Watkisville.
Four people stepped forward to ask about the role the Board plays in student performance, about school taxes and the transparency of information, about challenges for the Board, and about testing in the schools.
“We are a liaison between our constituents and the school system,” Parrish, a financial adviser who was chosen by the Board to fill an empty seat two years ago, said in response to the question about the role of the Board.
“If I’m hearing things, that maybe this isn’t working, or parents are complaining about this, or some students would like to see this,” she said. “I don’t go into the school system and say ‘We have to have this.’ I don’t have my own personal agenda. I will ask the question and say ‘Why don’t we have that?’
“I think it is part of our responsibility to relay some of those issues,” Parrish said.
“What we hear from parents over and over again,” Thompson said in response to the question on taxes, “is that they don’t know how to access the Board of Education, they don’t get much feedback when they speak to the Board of Education, and that is something deeply disturbing to me.”
Thompson is a school social worker in the Clarke County School District. She and Argo are seeking Post 2 on the Board.
Misconceptions About Board
“I think there is a big misconception about the transparency,” Parrish said.
All Board members have their phone numbers and email addresses on the school system web site, she said. “I know that I’m responsive to anybody who reaches out to me. I know that I’ve reached out to people who I know have issues that haven’t come directly to me.”
“I think my biggest concern is that there is a misconception about what the Board’s role is and how we communicate with our community members,” Parrish said in response to the question on Board strengths and weaknesses.
“We are all very open to talking with community members,” she said. “We all are very open to any ideas, and learning from those ideas, and accepting those ideas.”
“That’s something I think we can do better at,” Parrish said, “is changing that perception and doing away with that myth that we’re closed and not transparent.”
Argo, vice chair of the Board and a retired educator, said the Board takes very seriously the state law that limits what they can do in sessions closed to the public. She also outlined how the Board allows time for citizens to speak at its meetings.
She said in her 10 years on the Board she has met many times with citizens in restaurants and coffee shops around the county “and talked to individuals that wanted to talk to me about something.”
Prochaska did not require those asking questions to identify themselves, and only some of them did.
One who did was Jonathan Veit, 1690 Calls Creek Circle, from just outside Watkinsville, who said he has two children in the public school system and wanted to know if the candidates “feel like the standardized tests and Milestones are overemphasized in our school system?”
Wellnitz answered first, saying she believed “that the Milestones are overemphasized.” She also said the children “are carrying this weight that they have to perform so that we can be the number one county in Georgia.”
She said the schools should focus on the whole child, not just the test scores, and should provide a more supportive environment for the students taking the tests.
Argo said “I do agree our students are tested too much, but, unfortunately, most of our tests are state-mandated.” She said Superintendent Jason Branch had sought the help of Sen. Cowsert to reduce some of this testing, and this had brought about some needed change.
“We will continue to work with our representatives and see if we can minimize the amount of testing,” Argo said. “We would rather have it as instructional time rather than testing time.”
More Than Test Scores
“Our children are not test scores,” Thompson said. “Our children are so much more than test scores. I know all too well in my house the stress, and the loss of appetite and the sleep disturbances and the tears that surround test take time.”
“Oconee County can be number one for more than test scores,” Thompson said.
“Nobody that I know in leadership on the Board or in leadership at the central office wants to be number one just for the sake of being number one,” Parrish said. “That’s not why we do what we do. I mean, we’re happy to be number one because it means our kids are excelling and we want to celebrate that.
“I just want to reiterate. We get the message. We know,” she said. “But these are state mandates we are required to follow. But where we can, we will always advocate what’s best for our families.”
Cowsert was the first to introduce himself in the second half of the candidate forum, and he said “There are a lot of parts of politics I don’t like that are very distasteful, but the service itself is a rewarding experience to me.
“And I appreciate you letting me be your voice and represent you in Atlanta and the state Senate,” Cowsert, an Athens attorney, said.
Hilliard said she served in various capacities in the U.S. Forest Service for 32 years and during that time she worked with all levels of government from mayors and commissioners to state representatives and to Senators and U.S. Congressmen.
“I know how good government should work based on the experience I had in government,” Hilliard said.
Gonzalez, an Athens attorney, said she came from a working poor background, that she herself had been working since she was 14 years, and that she was a single mother for 16 years. She said she went to law school at night and balanced the needs of work and her family.
Gonzalez said she was “so proud” of the past legislative session, her first, “because I was able to work on things that affect the every day people.” She included funding for state schools, adoption law reform, and domestic violence legislation as examples of accomplishments.
Gaines, in his introduction, said he lives and works in Athens and “is proud to be a third generation Athenian.” He said he is running for the state House seat “because I think we deserve better.” Gaines is a consultant to a fundraising organization.
Gaines said he and Gonzalez “come from vastly different political ideologies. She considers herself one of the eight most progressive members of the general assembly,” Gaines said. “I certainly come from a different background.”
About 20 people left the forum after the four school board candidates spoke, but those who remained were anxious to ask questions. In the end, only seven were able to do so given the time constraints.
Hilliard said she was disappointed that, in the last session, the legislature did not pass a bill on human predators. Cowsert said he was proud the legislature fully funded K-12 education.
Gaines said Gonzalez accomplished nothing in the last session because she didn’t have her name on a bill that was passed.
Gonzalez said Gaines didn’t understand how the legislature worked and she was proud of being able to killing bad legislation with unforseen consequences because of her legal training.
Gonzalez said local police should not hold nonviolent persons for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because it is expensive and counterproductive.
Gaines said he opposes Athens becoming a sanctuary city and that the state has a role in “insuring that our cities don’t become sanctuary cities by defunding many cities that tries to move in that direction.”
“This verges on one of these issues which we really don’t have much influence over,” Cowsert said. “It is a federal issue.”
“Many of these communities are fearful of our law enforcement officers,” Hilliard said. “If they’re enforcing federal laws, it makes them much less inclined to be cooperative, to be forthcoming with information when our local law enforcement officers are in there needing to get information.”
One questioner wanted to know why people should trust the candidate.
Gaines, who spoke first, said “part of the way you can trust me is by looking at people who have entrusted me with their support.”
“I guess the best thing you can do is look how somebody has served in office if they have served before,” Cowsert said. “I’ve served for 12 years and I’m proud of my record.”
“I’m a really good listener,” Hilliard said. “ When I’m elected I’ll come back frequently to hear what’s bugging you and what you need me to work on.”
“One of the things you can look at is what are our motives. Why are we running?” Gonzalez said.
Cowsert said he does not support a single-payer medical program for the state.
Hilliard called on the state to expand Medicaid coverage and to consider options for a single-payer medical program.
Gonzalez also said the state should expand Medicaid because it is losing federal funds by not doing so and try to find ways to drive down health costs generally.
“I oppose a single-payer state health care plan,” Gaines said. He said it is too expensive.
Impact Of Tax Cuts, Minimum Wage
One questioner asked how the state could provide needed funds for education and medical services if it cuts taxes.
“In the long run, there is a lot of benefit to bringing in more revenue,” Hilliard said. “Tax cuts are often popular, but legislators need to be real honest with the citizens when we are going to cut taxes. How is that going to impact the services that we provide?”
“Government has to provide a certain amount of resources and services to its people,” Gonzales said. But “government should be as big as the people need it to be,” not more or less, she said.
Gaines called for additional tax cuts and for further cuts in the state budget. “Certainly education and health are certainly central functions of state government,” he said, and those should not be cut.
Cowsert said he supported the latest round of state tax cuts and wants to offset tax cuts by growing the economy “through a tax friendly environment, by less regulation, less aggravation to businesses from our state government.”
Gonzalez and Hilliard said they supported a minimum wage of $15 in the state.
Gaines and Cowsert said they are opposed to a $15 minimum wage.
Cowsert On Campus Carry
The final questioner asked the candidates for their position on repeal of campus carry bill, passed by the legislature in 2016 and 2017. Gov. Deal did not sign the 2016 bill, but he did sign the one in 2017.
The premise of the question was that, if Democrat Stacey Abrams is elected governor, she would be receptive to repeal.
The person asked Cowsert specifically, who voted for the 2016 bill and against the one in 2017, for an explanation.
“I guess I’m either a flip flopper or I’m open minded,” Cowsert said. “You can decide what you think.”
He said in 2016 he was concerned about crime at Atlanta’s universities, but “I heard from my constituents after that vote. The large majority of the people I represent,” Cowsert added, “said they didn’t support that.”
“My most important constituent is my wife, Amy,” Cowsert said. “She said you better not come home tonight if you vote for that bill.”
“I think that (second) vote reflected the will of this community,” he said. Cowsert said he would vote “consistently with my last vote” if the issue came up again.
Hilliard And Gonzalez On Campus Carry
“I would absolutely support repeal of guns on campus,” Hilliard said. “It’s a bad law, a dangerous law.”
“There’s no reasons that we need to have guns on our campuses,” she said.
“The campus carry bill was actually one of the reasons why I was encouraged to run,” Gonzalez said of he special election in 2017, “because people in House District 117 were very concerned about this bill.”
“If legislators aren’t willing to have guns come into the Capitol, they shouldn’t be going into our universities.”
Gonzalez said she would support repeal.
Gaines On Campus Carry
“I do hope Brian Kemp is elected as our next governor,” Gaines said in his response. “Based on the House or the Senate aren’t really in contention for flipping, so I don’t see that actually being a bill up for consideration
“But I think that’s something, as I said since last year when I was running, at the time, certainly, I wanted to see what the results were. At that time, it had not been implemented. Now, it’s been there for a year. We’ve not seen the concerns come to fruition.”
Gaines said “Obviously, you don’t want to wait for a tragedy.” But he said concerns expressed about the impact of earlier expansion of gun rights had shown that “What the opponents said was going to happen has not happened.
“I think that (repeal) will not be something that is up for consideration in the General Assembly,” Gaines repeated. “And again I hope Brian Kemp is elected as governor.”
Several people in the audience yelled out that Gaines had not answered the question and asked if he would vote to repeal the law.
“It’s not going to come up,” he said.
Wallace And Wiedower
As the forum got underway, Prochaska announced that neither Wallace nor Wiedower would be speaking but did not explain.
In the Oct. 4 issue of the paper, Prochaska wrote that all candidates except Wiedower would be attending the forum and that the paper “is interviewing Wiedower separately, using only questions that were asked of the other candidates at the forum.”
Wiedower told me in an email message Friday that “had a family event that had been planned for over a year” and could not reschedule it. He said he had told Prochaska of that conflict when the date for the forum was announced.
Wallace told me in an email exchange Friday that he learned on Thursday morning that Prochaska planned to write a separate article based on Wiedower’s responses to the questions posed at the forum .
Wallace said he decided to withdraw from participation in the forum at that point so that coverage would be equal.
Prochaska announced on Thursday that the two candidates would be part of a Chamber of Commerce forum from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 11 in Third Floor Auditorium of the Medical Services Building, Piedmont Athens Regional, 242 King Avenue, Athens.
The video below is of the entire candidate forum. I have removed the short gap between the Board of Education portion of the forum and the legislative candidate portion.
The four Board of Education candidates began their introduction at 7:10.
The first of the four persons who asked questions came to the microphone at 17:58.
The four Board of Education candidates began their closing statements at 49:30.
The four legislative candidates began their introductions at 58:28.
The first question was asked of the legislative candidates at 1:11:26 in the video.
The questions were asked in the order I’ve written about them above.
Closing comments are at 1:56:21.