Tom Odom, less than nine months into his third, four-year term as chair of the Oconee County Board of Education, announced on Monday that he is stepping down from the Board on Sept. 1 for health reasons.
Odom said in a statement he read at the Board of Education meeting on Monday that he made the decision after an “unexpected health issue” caused him to consider his tenure on the Board.
Much of the rest of the meeting was devoted to tributes by other board members and by Superintendent Jason Branch, who praised Odom for long service to the school system and the community even before Odom was elected to the Board as chair in 2012.
Under local legislation that has been in place for many years, the Oconee County Board of Education is allowed to appoint a replacement for Odom under procedures it sets.
Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communication for Oconee County Schools, said on Tuesday that the process to be used and the time line for a decision “are not yet available.”
Board Vice Chair Kim Argo said the Board will appoint a chair before the end of the calendar year but did not indicate the procedure that will be used.
At the end of the meeting on Monday, the Board listened to comments from six members of the community, four of whom praised by the Board for not requiring masks and vaccines as the school year launched, and two of whom asked the Board to reconsider its policy.
Article VIII, Section V, of the Georgia Constitution states that members of local boards of education shall be elected for terms of four years unless their terms are otherwise provided by local Act or constitutional amendment.
|Branch And Odom During Chair Report|
“In all instances where local laws applicable to local boards of education do not provide otherwise, a vacancy occurring for any reason on a local board of education shall be filled as follows," the document states.
Vacancies on the Board of Education that occur more than 90 days prior to a general election–in this case, November of 2022–are to be filled by a special election.
The constitution allows for an exception, however, if local legislation, that is legislation directed only at a specific county, has been passed by the General Assembly.
Both Argo and Jimenez forwarded to me the language of that local legislation for Oconee County.
“Any vacancy occurring in the membership of the Board of Education of Oconee County, for any cause whatsoever, shall be filled by a majority vote of the remaining members of the Board of Education,” the legislation reads.
Jimenez said the local law, passed by the Georgia General Assembly, has been in effect since 1964.
The Board has used differing procedures to fill Board vacancies in the past and even modified them during a search.
Neither Jimenez nor Argo was ready to indicate what procedures the Board might follow in this case.
One Appointment Or Two?
Odom holds Post 1 on the Board of Education, and that Post is the Board Chair and is designated as such on the ballot. Odom ran unopposed in 2020 as a Republican.
Odom said in his statement to the Board on Monday that by stepping down on Sept. 1 he was giving the Board additional time to transition to a new Board Chair and to begin planning the process for selecting a new board member.”
That suggested that the Board would be making two decisions, one for a Chair and the other for a new Board member.
I asked Argo, who was elected by the Board as vice chair at the beginning of this year, in an email message on Tuesday if two separate decision would be made.
“Post 1 needs to be replaced,” she wrote, referring to the Board Chair. “Therefore, the Board will appoint a Post 1 member during this calendar year.”
Odom told the Board on Monday that his Board Chair Report consisted of “just a statement and I won’t be taking any questions on its from the press or here this evening.”
Odom began reading the statement and said he set goals for himself when he ran for election to the Board the first time nine years ago. “All of those goals have been realized or are soon to be realized,” he said.
“Recently, I had an unexpected health issue that gave me pause for reflection,” Odom said, “and, in consultation with my physician and family, and after much consideration and prayer, I have come to the conclusion to resign, to resign my responsibilities at this time.”
“A special thanks should be extended to our superintendent Dr. Branch, cabinet and principals, all wonderful teachers and staff, and the students especially of Oconee County Schools,” Odom said.
“I want to thank my colleagues here on the present Board of Education as well as past members. It has been a pleasure to work with you on such important work, and I have come to value the professional, cordial, and productive nature of our relationship,” Odom said.
“I am very thankful for this experience, and I want you all to know that I will be a positive advocate for Oconee Schools and for public education,” Odom said. “May God’s richest blessings be with all of you.”
Odom began his educational career in 1977 at Clarke Central High School as a physical education teacher and coach.
In 1991, he joined Oconee County Schools as assistant principal at Oconee County Intermediate School, now Oconee County Middle School.
He served as principal of both Oconee County Middle School and Malcom Bridge Middle School. He was also interim principal at North Oconee High School.
Odom retired from Oconee County Schools in 2010.
Odom was president of the Georgia School Boards Association from 2017 to 2018.
When I contacted Odom on Monday evening and inquired about his decision and his health, he wrote back and said “The statement speaks for itself” and “I will be fine.”
Comments From Others
Argo was the first to speak after Odom read his statement, and, reading from her own statement, told Odom that “You have always been professional, and our students’ well-being and success has always been in the forefront of all of your decisions.”
|Branch And Odom During Testimonials|
Board Member Tim Burgess said he applied for appointment to the Board to fill a vacancy after talking to Odom to learn about “the culture he wanted to create and chair over for the Board.”
Burgess said “he described for me the exact of what I considered effective, appropriate culture for the Board to be.”
“You care deeply about doing what’s best for students, the staff and our community,” Board member Amy Parrish, also reading from a text, said. “That has been very apparent every day that I’ve served with you and never more so that last year.”
Michael Ransom, elected to the Board only last November, said “During the time that I have known you I can see that you are a man of high integrity, a great leader, and have a servant’s heart.”
“The Board chair and superintendent relationship is one that has to be experienced to be completely understood,” Superintendent Branch said. “But I’m so pleased and honored to have had the opportunity to experience it with you.”
“I just appreciate the respect, love and caring that you have shown for our school system, for me personally, and for my family over the years,” Branch said. “I think you are a model for the nation.”
The testimonials to Odom ended with North Oconee High School Principal Philip Brown praising Odom for his “calming sense and emotional composure” and Jimenez presenting Odom with a plague as a “token of appreciation” from Oconee County Schools.
The first of the six citizens who addressed the Board was Richard Turner, who said he did not have any children in the schools at present.
|Turner, Katt, McCants|
Tomingas, Montgomery, Mauck
He said he was there to state his “appreciation of the Board making the wearing of the mask the decision of the parents and the child instead of mandating.”
He said his granddaughter, who is attending school in Savannah and is required to wear a mask, comes home from school “totally exhausted with a splitting headache” from the mask.
Jaylene Katt said her children experienced health issues last year due to masking.
“Once we stopped masking for long periods of times those issues went away,” she said.
Rebecca McCants said “We are really grateful to you for keeping the schools open, not mandating masks, and not mandating vaccines because there are vaccine injuries in the world that people do partake of.”
Oconee County Schools opened last year with a policy of strongly recommending but not requiring masks.
It opened this year without a mask or vaccination mandate and the statement that masks are allowed.
Two Pediatricians Speak
Dr. Akilah Tomingas, a pediatrician who said she has three students in the school district, said she wants the Board to change its mask policy based on recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Georgia Department of Public Health.
“All agree that in order to keep kids in person, which is what I think we all want, in order to do that safely this school year, we should have extremely important mitigations in place to decrease the spread of COVID-19,” she said.
“I’d like us all to work together to get through this school year in person by requiring indoor masking for all,” she said.
Dr. Kelly Montgomery, a pediatric physician who said she has a child in elementary school in the county, said “As we begin the 2021-2022 school year, we have excitement of returning to learning in our routines and schedules along with apprehension of still living in the shadow of COVID-19.”
“I am a parent anxious to see my kid back in school and return to normalcy,” she said. “I, too, want to go back to No Masks. But I don’t think we’re there yet.”
“I had COVID positive cases last week and today,” she said.
“This COVID-19 Delta Variant is different from the initial strain we were introduced to back in March of 2020,” she continued. “This Delta variant is more contagious, more easily transmissible. It is more contagious, and kids are getting sicker from this variant.”
“I am concerned that all the steps our School District took last year to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have been downgraded,” Dr. Montgomery said.
Reactions Of Final Speaker
Julie Mauck followed Drs. Tomingas and Montgomery to the podium and said “The CDC, the American Pediatrics Association, all of these organizations are obviously profoundly political anymore, so it is very difficult to trust any of their information.”
“We know that kids are at very, very little risk of this disease especially from having anything major from it or passing it along to anyone else,” she said, contradicting the comments of the physicians.
“We didn’t wear masks all of last year. We haven’t worn masks,” she said. She said she had gotten COVID-19.
Mauck said her daughter wore a mask for one week and she got a throat infection as a result.
“I just don’t think that kids should carry this imaginary burden, you know, social well being, put that burden on our children,” Mauck said. “There are age groups that you know need to be much more careful than our children do.”
Over the past year “children were seven times more likely to die in an automobile accident than from COVID in the state of Georgia,” Mauck said. “So I think that’s important to know.”
“I’d really like to get back to normal, every day, events, everything, back to normal,” she said.
The embedded video was recorded by Oconee County Schools.
Odom began his Board Chair Report at 16:09 in the video.
The roughly 20 minutes of tributes follow.
The six citizens who spoke began their comments at 45:51 in the video.
Note: This story has been updated to include the date when the local law regarding replacement of school board members went into effect.