Divisive 2012 vote still affects Muscogee school board politics

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 3, 2014 

Two years ago this month, a bloc of Muscogee County School Board members blocked the retiring superintendent's nine recommended personnel moves -- without explanation.

The chairwoman of the nine-member board called the revolt "shameful." Another board member called it "embarrassing." An administrator called the five rebelling board members "cowards."

Voters were outraged. Two months later, two of the three bloc members up for re-election were ousted.

Now, another election cycle has arrived, and two more bloc members are running. And that two-year-old vote still is a campaign issue.

Susan Andrews, the snubbed superintendent, had decided to retire a month earlier. Five days after she departed the district, the board unanimously approved the same recommended promotions, this time presented by interim Superintendent John Phillips. Critics complained no board members clearly explained why they changed their minds.

Since then, school board members, candidates and voters have debated the uproar's significance. But this much is clear: The result of that May 21, 2012, school board rejection continues to be a hot topic -- and the result of this year's May 20 school board election could depend on how voters interpret that history.

Revelations

This past week, the Ledger-Enquirer revisited the controversy to shed light on what some consider one of the darkest moments in the Muscogee County School District's 64-year history. The hope was that time and distance have allowed the actors in this political drama to answer unanswered questions. Here's what the L-E learned from those interviews.

• Andrews, speaking for the first time on the record about this controversy, insisted none of the board members who voted against those personnel recommendations ever expressed a concern about them to her.

District 2 representative John Wells, who is running for re-election, said he indeed asked Andrews "lots of questions," but he refused to be specific.

District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green, who isn't up for re-election, also contended she "had some questions" for Andrews, but Green also wouldn't be specific.

District 8 representative Beth Harris, also up for re-election, asked the Ledger-Enquirer to email her its questions, but she didn't reply before deadline.

Two years ago, Norene Marvets was the District 7 representative and James Walker was the District 3 representative, but they were unseated in the 2012 election. They weren't reached for comment this past week.

District 4 representative Naomi Buckner, who is up for re-election but is running unopposed, is the only other board member who voted against one of Andrews' recommendations that night. Buckner voted against only the recommended principal for Richards Middle School in a 6-3 vote. The other proposed promotions were blocked 5-4 by Green, Harris, Marvets, Walker and Wells.

• Cathy Williams, the board's lone county-wide representative and the chairwoman two years ago, alleged the five board members who blocked all of Andrews' moves conspired against the superintendent. Williams, who isn't seeking re-election, named Wells as the ring leader. Wells denied any collusion.

• District 6 representative Mark Cantrell, who is running for re-election but doesn't face opposition, claimed Wells called him the day of the board meeting to vote against all of the recommended promotions.

Cantrell recalled, "I just spoke from the heart and told him, 'That ain't right, John.'"

The Ledger-Enquirer asked Wells in an email and voicemail whether that allegation is true, but he didn't respond before deadline.

• The campaigns for one of Wells' three challengers for the District 2 seat, John F. Thomas, and Harris' opponent in District 8, Frank Myers, mailed flyers to residents this past week highlighting that two-year-old vote. The flyers call the vote "one of the most embarrassing and disgraceful abuses of political power ever witnessed in our city."

• A video titled "Muscogee County Fiasco" shows the divisive vote and still gets hits on YouTube. It has attracted more than 2,000 views.

• Green accused Williams of violating the board's code of ethics by campaigning against another board member.

"The only place I see people bringing this up is on Cathy Williams' Facebook page," Green said.

Green refused to show the Ledger-Enquirer where in the code such a violation is mentioned. The Ledger-Enquirer couldn't find it, and Georgia School Boards Association communications director Justin Pauly said it doesn't exist in the statewide model code each local board must adopt. The code does, however, state that each board member should "communicate in a respectful professional manner with and about fellow board members."

Repercussions

Beyond this election, Charles Lawhon, the district's PTA director, mentioned another reason why the board's two-year-old vote still matters: the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which funds the school district's capital projects and expires at the end of this year. Superintendent David Lewis has said he plans to ask the board to seek renewal of the SPLOST and authorize a referendum for voters to approve next year, probably in May 2015.

Lawhon, a member of the citizen committee overseeing the SPLOST, said the board has lost too much trust for him to agree to renew the 1 percent sales tax.

"If I have to vote today, I would vote no, and they would have a hard time getting it passed," Lawhon said. "There are still things that need to be addressed. … Some of the old folks have been on that board so long, they are set in their ways. They think they can dictate and run things, and there's no accountability there.

"To me, the board slapped and spit in those administrators' faces, and they're going to find out that will play a huge role in this election."

Some say it already did in the July 31, 2012, election.

Green retained her District 1 seat with 54.7 percent of the vote against challenger Al Stewart. In District 3, however, Walker lost to challenger Athavia "A.J." Senior, who received 52 percent of the vote, and in District 7, Marvets lost to Shannon Smallman, who received 55.8 percent of the vote.

Myers, the attorney and political consultant who helped the board pass its 2009 SPLOST referendum, spent the past two years being among the board's most vocal critics. He targeted the 2012 incumbents with a "Boot the Board" campaign and frequently berated the board during public comment time at meetings. Now, as he knocks on doors throughout District 8, he hears residents continue to bring up the May 21, 2012, vote.

"They still can't believe the way those board members treated those educators," Myers said. "… It's another example of how they got so out of touch with what's important. It was just a huge political power play, political gamesmanship at the expense of these kids."

Myers posed the question for voters this way: "Do you believe your own ears, Susan Andrews and Cathy Williams, or do you believe John Wells and Beth Harris?"

'Unfounded and absurd'

Wells, the board's senior member with 28 years of service and a former chairman, said the conspiracy accusations are "just unfounded and absurd. People can say what they want to and do what they want to, but I'm independent."

Phillips, not Andrews, answered his questions about the recommendations, Wells said. That's why he changed his vote six weeks later, he said.

"It wasn't a power play, not something orchestrated," Wells said. "I'm not a rubber stamp. I make my votes on all the information, and when I can't get answers to my questions, I'm not going to vote for it."

Asked for examples of those questions, Wells said, "That's been two years ago. I can't remember all of them. Some were from my constituents, wanting to find out some things."

Andrews and Wells agree on one key episode, however: As the board gathered that night for the vote, he privately asked her before the meeting started to delay the personnel recommendations.

"There was no rush to get this done," Wells said.

There indeed was a rush, Andrews emphasized. With seven principal appointments and two other administrator positions pending, planning was at a standstill for those schools and programs during the summer until the board gave its blessing.

Williams said that rejecting the recommended adult education director risked losing state funding for that department.

She also mentioned that pre-meeting conversation between Andrews and Wells as key to the controversy for another reason: After his attempt to convince Andrews to table her recommendations failed, Williams said, she overheard Wells tell the four other eventual opposing voters, "We are going to vote them all down."

Proper concern

Andrews said other Muscogee County board members properly handled their concerns about another recommended personnel move during the same work session when those other promotions were on the agenda a week before the divisive vote.

Cantrell, whose district covers Mathews Elementary, said he received 30-40 phone calls questioning why then-assistant principal Jan Greene wasn't Andrews' choice to become the principal.

"I was a new board member, so I wasn't sure what to do," Cantrell said. "I just felt I did what I was supposed to do and brought up that red flag at the work session."

After hearing those concerns, Andrews removed her principal recommendation for Mathews, so it didn't appear on the agenda at the May 21, 2012, meeting. She thought all the other recommendations were "perfectly safe, that they most likely would get unanimous votes."

Asked why she was so confident, Andrews said board members "never asked me a single question about any of those candidates that they voted down."

Some folks on and around the board have speculated the bloc was organized to get Andrews to leave sooner than planned so Phillips could return to the district as interim superintendent. She announced her retirement in March 2012 and scheduled her last day for that July 31.

"They wanted her gone," Williams said, "and the only way they could get her to leave early was to literally bully her out."

Andrews moved her retirement date to June 30 after the May 21 vote.

"They were sending me a message," Andrews said. "But it was not the right way to do it, not the professional way to do it, not the respectful way to do it."

Kia Chambers, a candidate for the county-wide seat on the board, said "open communication" is crucial between the board and superintendent and then to the public.

"I don't foresee waiting until the night of the vote if I had concerns," Chambers said. "I would voice those concerns at the time and have the reasons and evidence to back up my concerns."

That's exactly what the work session is for, said Owen Ditchfield, a former board member from District 7, now running for the county-wide seat.

"It should be clear that if board members are opposing anything they should express their disapproval then," Ditchfield said. "Individual board members also can call up the superintendent, not to micromanage but just as a common courtesy."

Nate Sanderson, another candidate for the county-wide seat, said board members can't forget "the human factor" when they vote on recommendations.

"Adults need to sit down when they have a difference of opinion and come to a meeting of the minds," Sanderson said.

Victor Morales, one of the three candidates running against Wells, said board members "need to be reminded that they work for the people, so they should have to explain their votes."

But the GSBA doesn't require its members to give such an explanation, Pauly said. Votes on personnel are especially prickly "due to legal constraints," he added.

Political motivation

Thomas and John "Bart" Steed mentioned the board's May 21, 2012, vote as part of their motivation to challenge Wells.

Thomas called it a "turning point" for him.

"Prior to that, I just thought the school board was running under the radar," Thomas said. "But you can look at that vote as where trust just fell away. It was a crystallizing moment. They were so involved with little schoolyard games, pushing people down. I was disappointed that an elected body would act like that. … That was a moment when the curtain was pulled back."

Steed called the vote against the promotions "extremely malicious and totally uncalled for." The lack of an accompanying explanation when the opposing votes were cast "goes to the accountability and transparency" Steed said the board lacks.

Williams calls the May 2012 opposing voters "the Bloc of Five." She acknowledged it was the final piece of evidence that convinced her to yield the chairmanship to Rob Varner of District 5 in January 2013 and not seek re-election this year.

Andrews and Williams agree their influence on the board started to slip because of two earlier controversial votes in the spring of 2012:

• The March appointment of Britt David Magnet Academy principal Ronie Collins as chief academic officer over elementary education director Karon Greyer, who subsequently retired. That passed 5-4. Cantrell, Harris, Varner, Wells and Williams approved. Buckner, Green, Marvets and Walker opposed.

"They thought bringing a principal to the central office in that position was premature," Andrews said. "But Karon told me she might be retiring, and the job needed someone longer term."

• The April reinstatement of Columbus High principal Marvin Crumbs after he was reassigned for showing an offensive video to his faculty. The vote was 7-1. Harris was the only dissenter. Wells abstained.

Williams recalled Harris "was seething" after the vote. "She was glaring at me like she wanted to tear my throat out."

Then, after the May revolt, Williams could do the math.

"I knew I had lost the board," Williams said. "There was no working relationship left. That spring was the reason I decided not to run again. I couldn't believe that people would do that to other people. I didn't want to be in a toxic environment anymore."

Moving on

Wells urged the discussion during this election to focus elsewhere.

"All I want to do is move this district ahead," he said. "I'm ready to move on from this and get on with it."

Varner, however, feared the board wouldn't be able to move on from the bad publicity the May 2012 vote produced amid the superintendent search. It took the board 16 months after Andrews announced her retirement to fill the position with the hiring of Lewis from Polk County, Fla., in July 2013.

No superintendent candidate told him that the board's rejection of Andrews' recommendations made them wary of the district, Varner said, "but I just believe it probably shrunk the pool of applicants because (the controversy) was so raw and fresh."

Lewis declined to answer the Ledger-Enquirer's questions about whether the divisive May 2012 vote affected his interest in the district and how he works here.

"It would not be appropriate for me to respond to these questions as I do not have firsthand knowledge of all of the facts in this matter," Lewis wrote in an email. "Since my arrival, I have been focused on the present with an eye to the future for our district."

Before the Muscogee County School Board hired Andrews in December 2008, she was superintendent in her native Harris County, where she resides. She commutes to Atlanta for her job as a deputy superintendent for the state.

Andrews was reluctant to be interviewed about the May 2012 controversy, but she eventually agreed so she could help set the record straight.

She still doesn't know why the board's bloc rejected her recommendations, Andrews said, and she never asked.

"I didn't think it would serve any purpose," she said.

Ultimately, she concluded, "the voters have to decide whether this was just a one-time debacle or is it a pattern of behavior."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service