John Wells announced Thursday his re-election campaign to retain the District 2 seat on the Muscogee County School Board.
"I'm going to continue to use my years of experience in business and in community service to deliver the very best education possible to the students in this district," Wells said. "And I'll always remember my motto and my focus as students first."
Wells, 74, is a businessman with interests mostly in property management and construction. His 28 years of service make him the nine-member board's senior representative. He has been the board's chairman and, for the past 17 years, the finance committee chairman.
Due to state budget cuts -- which have amounted to about $140 million the past 10 years, Wells said -- Muscogee teachers had to absorb a total of 23 furlough days over four years before the board managed to pass a $270,596,469 budget in June for fiscal year 2014 without furlough days. Despite a projected cut of $10 million to $14 million in state funding for fiscal year 2015, Wells said, the board has vowed to again pass a budget without furlough days and continue paying teachers their annual $2,500 supplement.
"With finances and the austere economy that we're in now," he said, "this board and this school system, our finances are in excellent condition."
Yet the district still is looking to make cuts. Saving money is one of the reasons superintendent David Lewis has proposed changing the high schools' schedules from a 4x4 block to the traditional seven periods. That would allow the district to reduce high school staff by as much as 15 percent to save $4 million to $4.5 million through reassignments and attrition but without layoffs, Lewis has said. The proposed schedule also would allow for more common planning among teachers and add a period called "Increased Learning Time" for student remediation and enrichment, Lewis has said.
Wells noted the district's high school graduation rate is above the state average. As the Ledger-Enquirer reported in December, the district's graduation rate had lagged behind the state average until jumping 5.3 percent, from 67.5 percent in 2012 to 72.8 percent in 2013, while the state increased from 69.7 to 71.5.
"Some people didn't believe that because Columbus is considered a poor county, and in a poor county you tend to have lower graduation rates," Wells said. "But we exceed the state average."
Wells also clarified what he characterized as another misconception: "All our students have books, and all our teachers have paper to prepare lessons," he said. "There's been some comment about that. If there's books missing, we don't know about it, and if teachers don't have enough paper to prepare for the lessons, if they'll let myself or the superintendent know, we'll fix that right away."
Wells conducted his news conference on the grass between the Muscogee County Public Education Center and the City Services Center. About 20 supporters held campaign signs behind him as he made his announcement.
Ranger Joe's owner Paul Voorhees gave the invocation.
"God is special to us at times," Voorhees said. "He's been at his best sometimes. God was at his best when he created John Wells, and now he's at his best for us by having John Wells be a school board member for all these years."
Former Columbus mayor Bob Poydasheff introduced Wells.
"The one thing I love about John Wells is he cares about the school board," Poydasheff said. "Now, he may be contentious at times. He's like me in that regard. We say what we believe in. But our ultimate belief is John's belief, that the children are the most important legacy that we have. They are our inheritance, and he believes in that. He's not there to make waves. He's not there for his own aggrandizement. He's not bombastic, but he's worked and worked for the benefit of the school system and for the benefit of our children. He's a man of integrity; he's a man of decency; he's a businessman; and I'm honored to be on his side."
John "Bart" Steed, the owner of Kar-Tunes Car Stereo, has registered a campaign committee to run against Wells for the District 2 seat, but Steed hasn't announced his candidacy.
Qualifying starts Monday and runs through March 7. The nonpartisan election day is May 20, but early voting starts April 28.