Incumbent Oconee County Board of Education Post 4 Member Tim Burgess had some advice for the three other candidates seeking a spot on the Board at Thursday’s night’s virtual candidate forum.
The Board is a governing body, Burgess said, and it hires a superintendent to run the schools.
Most of the issues that come before the Board are operational issues, Burgess said, and the Board should not get involved in those issues until after school administrators have tried to resolve them.
Questions about the role of the Board permeated the dialog at the forum.
Burgess was responding to–but did not answer directly--a question from a citizen, who wanted to know why Board members had not responded to an email he said he sent to all of them in July asking questions about COVID-19.
Michael Ransom, seeking Post 5 on the Board of Education, also said he wanted parents to follow the “chain of command” when they have an issue with the schools, starting with teachers and school administrators.
Joan Parker, also seeking Post 5 on the Board, said Board members should respond to any questions “about how decisions are made and any policy issues. If it is an individual issue with a particular teacher, then I think it does need to go through the school,” she added.
Parker is the Democratic nominee for Post 5, and Ransom is the Republican nominee.
Laura Ormes, who is the Democratic nominee opposing Republican Tim Burgess for Post 4, missed the forum because of a death in the family.
The three remaining candidates responded to 15 questions ranging from the school system’s mask policy to its decision to charge the county for use of school sports facilities during the 90-minute long session.
Format Of Session
In collaboration with my wife, Ann Hollifield, I had invited all four of the candidates for Post 4 and Post 5 to the virtual forum on Zoom, which began at 8 p.m. on Thursday.
Karen Hilyard, who is involved in the local Democratic Party and has organized many Zoom sessions both professionally and for the Democatic Party, and Philip Ashford, involved in the local Republic Party and who helps record meetings that I use on my blog, joined as co-hosts to manage admission to the forum and chat.
Ormes, who had agreed to join the session, sent me an email on Thursday afternoon, saying her sister had passed away suddenly and she was out of town with her family.
“Please pass along my deepest apologies for not attending,” she wrote. “I am so sorry, but I have to focus on my family at this time. Thank you for your understanding.”
We began the session with self-introductions by Burgess, then Ransom and Parker. I had rolled a die to determine the order.
The Board of Elections is made up of five members, each of whom serves a four-year term.
Chair Tom Odom’s name will be on the ballot in November, but he has no opposition. I did not invite him to join the candidate forum so as to allow more time for questioning of candidates for the contested seats.
Board Members Kim Argo and Amy Parrish were elected in 2018.
Burgess, 64, focused on his career in state government and at the University of Georgia in his introductory comments.
He served 27 years in state government, with 20 of those years in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, he said. He spent the last seven years of his career as a senior vice president at the University of Georgia.
Burgess has been on the Board for almost seven years and said “it has been a wonderful opportunity to participate in something that not only is vitally important to our community but vitally important to me as an individual.”
Michael Ransom, 38, said he had been in the Navy for six years and now works as a consulting forester.
He has lived in Oconee County for about four years now, he said, and he said that he told his wife when they moved here he wanted to be involved here.
“One reason I want to serve on the Board is so that I can help and serve my community,” he said. “I think that people my age really need to take the torch get passed on and start being more involved.”
Joan Parker, 54, an industrial engineer, said she had been involved with Oconee County Schools while her two children were in the schools.
“We’re in a unique time with the pandemic,” she said. “And the School Board currently has more responsibility than ever.”
“As a parent in a community,” she said, “You have a right to know how decisions are made. And I’m committed to making decisions based on science and being transparent and accountable.”
Ormes, 41, listed her occupation as former analyst on her campaign filing forms.
The first question I received after I announced the forum, and the first I asked, had to do with school policy surrounding the opening of school of Aug. 5. Many of the questions that followed did as well.
Parker and Ransom said they supported a mandatory mask policy for the schools. Oconee County Schools does not have such a policy, and Burgess said he does not support such a policy.
One of the very last questions I asked was if the candidates would support a hybrid approach for instruction in the spring if the pandemic continues.
Burgess said the school district early on decided “it had to be flexible and had to be adaptable” to respond to the circumstances as they change.
The schools will need to change he said, “but the primary focus is to keep school open, in a safe environment, as safe as we can.”
“For me, I think the primary responsibility is to keep our kids safe,” Parker said. “First and foremost, safety above everything else, while providing a quality education.”
She said a hybrid approach could be part of the plans.
“I think we definitely need to do some research into having a phased or blended-hybrid model,” Ransom said.
“And we probably should have a number of threshold that we’re looking at it. If we get a certain number of COVID cases, do we jump right into that model? It shouldn’t be that we’re just waiting until next semester to have that in place.”
Teri Breedlove submitted a question that said Oconee County Schools has provided “form letters and ambiguous state guideline references to those seeking information that other districts pro-actively publish” regarding COVID-19 in the schools.
“Please provide your thoughts on the District’s transparency during this pandemic and how you may change things if elected,” Breedlove said.
Parker said she is not on the Board at present and was responding without that perspective.
“We are here to serve the community,” she said. “All I can do is be a voice. I can listen to hear what issue people want to address and try and make sure it as clear as possible about how decisions were made.”
“There’s nothing to hide,” Ransom said. “But also I would like to challenge more people in the county to get involved in coming to some of the Board meetings and staying educated on what some of the topics are.
“If you don’t watch the Board meetings online or go to the Board meetings or keep up with it,” Ransom said, “sometimes you may not know what is going on and it might seem like a surprise when something comes out or doesn’t come out that might have been mentioned in one of those forums”
“There’s no question transparency is clearly the right approach in any public environment,” Burgess said. “Any decision that we’re considering and anything else should clearly be transparent and would ask that anyone ask any question of any Board member or the superintendent and expect a transparent answer.”
Ransom On Role Of Board
Daniel Pace submitted the question about his inability to get a response from the Board to his July email regarding COVID-19 before the opening of the schools. Pace's was the third question I asked, and the answers anticipated much of what followed.
“I think that every Board member should be approachable, especially to the general public,” Ransom, the first to respond, said to Pace. “I think that open lines of communication are key to everything in life, especially something like this.
“I also believe in the chain of command, I was in the military,” Ransom said. “So I like to run it up the chain of command if at all possible.”
He said parents should reach out to teachers and then administrators before coming to the Board of Education.”
“In my opinion,” Ransom said, “The School Board, they are there to set the direction of the school and then to oversee things. So not necessarily to deal with the day-to-day issues, but to oversee the administrators and the superintendent and make sure they’re handling those issues.”
“If none of that is being resolved, sure, go straight to the Board,” he said. “I think the Board should be there to answers some of those questions and provide response to that.”
Parker On Role Of Board
“My understanding of the Board is that we are here for policy,” Parker said.
“So we can’t do the day-to-day of what is going on within the schools with the individual teachers,” she said. “If a parent has an issue with an individual teacher, so conflict, that’s for the principal and the superintendent to handle.
“As a Board member, we can help with policy,” she said. “We can help with where, I think, there can be complete transparency about how decisions are made. What facts are we basing the decisions on? Where are we getting our information?
“So I do think any emails should be responded to from the Board about how decisions are made and any policy issues,” she said. “If it is an individual issue with a particular teacher, then I think it does need to go through the school.”
Burgess On Role Of Board
“The Board, is in fact, a governing Board,” Burgess said. “And we hire a superintendent to be the CEO and the operational manager of the school system.
“And I think all of the Board members that are there today clearly understand and operate within that framework,” Burgess said. “We set policy. We manage policy. We deal with the fiscal responsibility issues of the budget and taxing.
“And we are responsive to the community when it comes to what I would term political issues,” he added.
“But when the issues generally deal, which are most of the issues that I’ve always been faced with, they are usually what I would classify as operational issues,” Burgess said. “Something that is going on with a particular student in a particular school. And some question about how to resolve that particular issue.
“And our consistent response has always been, and I think it’s appropriate, that you deal with the chain of command that starts with the teacher, that then moves to the principal, that then moves to the superintendent,” Burgess explained.
“And only after all of those issues have been exhausted, and the issue is still unresolved, or unaddressed, is it appropriate for the Board, including myself, to be involved in individual, specific, operational issues,” Burgess said.
“I think that is an important distinction to keep in front of everyone who wants to be involved in the Board,” Burgess added.
Relationship Between Boards
I combined two questions that had been submitted into this one: “What can be done to improve the working relationship between the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners?”
It was Burgess’ turn in the rotation to respond first.
“Well, let me start by saying this,” Burgess said. “The basis of that question suggests there is not a good working relationship. And I don’t believe that. I don’t think there is an inordinate amount of conflict or friction between the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners.”
“From an outsider’s perspective I feel there is opportunities for improvement,” Parker said. “It does not seem like it has been seamless. It seems like there has been conflict.”
Ransom said the two Boards should work together on projects that involve both of them.
“We need to show that we can work together,” Ransom said. “We don’t want to drive away a potential employer like Cat or somebody because they see squabbling inbetween the two groups.
“We definitely need to present a unified front and figure out some of those issues early,” he said, “so they don’t turn into bigger issues later on.”
Annotation of video
In response to other questions, all three candidates said they supported the decision by the Board of Education to charge the county fees for use of school sports facilities.
All also said they want the Board of Education to begin live streaming its meeting.
Fifty persons were listed as having connecting to the meeting at the peak about 60 minutes into the session.
I have annotated the video below from the session, listing out the questions and indicating where they are asked in that video.
(Time On Video 4:52): Opening comments, beginning with Burgess, followed by Ransom and Parker.
(15:01) Q1 John Phillips: “I have one simple question for the candidates. Do you support a mandatory mask policy for students at OCS’ schools. Yes or no? No hedging, no deflections–yes or no.”
(15:58) Q1A Melissa Halbach: “Some of our high school children are following recommendations and wearing a mask, but they are being forced to sit two feet away from unmasked children who are opting out of following the recommendation. The teachers are not allowed to separate mask wearers from non mask wearers in the classroom. These mask wearing high school kids then feel unsafe. They know their mask is protecting others, yet the others (not wearing a mask) are not protecting them. What are you feelings on what should be done to make sure all of our children feel safe at school?”
(22:34) Q2 Dan Pace: “What do they believe is the boards responsibility in answering emails from a parent with children in the school district? I would like to specifically state that I had sent emails to each individual Board member asking for answers to relevant Covid questions in July and received no response from any of the sitting Board members.”
(27:14) Q3 Leslie Rudow: “We selected the digital learning option for my 2nd grader and 3rd grader. Overall, I’m deeply disappointed in our experience thus far. The model that was chosen for our OCS’ digital learners has set students, parents, and teachers up for failure...The consequence of all of this is that my children have not received an education at the level one would expect from OCS. I don’t want to hear excuses or the reasons these poor decisions were made. I do want to know what will be done moving forward to make sure that our students will receive a quality education.”
(33:39) Q4 Teri Breedlove: “On Aug 13,2020, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods’ indicated ‘it is also non-negotiable that we operate, in this moment, with transparency.’ Despite the directive, Oconee District leaders continue to provide form letters and ambiguous state guideline references to those those seeking information that other districts proactively publish. Please provide your thoughts on the District’s transparency during this pandemic and how you may change things if elected.”
(37:11) Q5 Jeanne Barsanti and Jeff Hood (reworded and combined): “What can be done to improve the working relationship between the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners?”
(42:23) Q6 Dan Magee: “From 1989 through 2020, the BOE & county Parks & Rec Dept. shared athletic facilities with no charges...Should the Board of Education charge the county rental fees for use of school facilities?”
(49:09) Q7 Micaela Hobbs: “As a former science teacher I would like to know how important is scientific opinion in forming your principles in regards to school policy involving health and safety?
(52:09) Q8 Andrea Wellnitz: “BoE meetings were live streamed during the shut down, currently the meetings are not truly open to the public because seating is limited and hardly anyone from the public is allowed in to the meetings, do you support live streaming these meetings?”
(55:52) Q9 Kelly Simmons: “Did the Board seek the advice from a political source like the CDC when it was considering a mask policy? Since that only can be answered presumably by Tim, I would ask the other candidates if they think that that is what should be done? (The question was supposed to say from a nonpolitical source but was transcribed incorrectly, but the candidates seemed to understand the meaning of the question. I re-asked the question as part of the summary at the end of the meeting after learning of the error.)
(59:12) Q10 Betsy Ricks: “You suggested pods of students. How familiar are you with the differentiated opportunities for students given their specific needs and how do you foresee doing this for every student?” (I misread the question. It should have said for every subject, not every student.)
(1:04:12) Q11 Laura Sherman: “To those suggesting online live, have you ever taught in that forum with students?”
(1:06:59) Q12 Derrick Lemons: “What do you see the role of the Board of Education being in holding the superintendent accountable for his or her decisions?”
(1:09:58) Q13 Hilfa Kurtz: “If the pandemic continues through the school year, would you support a hybrid approach to Spring instruction in which students were set up in pods and attended school in person on alternating weeks. That would give all kids an opportunity to learn in person and make it easier to social distance in the building.”
(1:17:07) Q14 DeeDee Risher: “What are the contingency plans if in-person instruction is not safe? What is the threshold for determining that it is not safe and why have the plans not been communicated to the taxpayers?”
(1:22:05) Summary Statements.