How will MCSB's longest lame-duck season affect it?

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 31, 2014 

The earliest election in Muscogee County School Board history has created its longest lame-duck season.

Board members, those in waiting and observers say how the current and incoming representatives handle this extended transition period will be crucial to the way the newly seated board functions come Jan. 1, when the next terms start.

At least two seats on the nine-member board will have new representatives:

Kia Chambers, ERA Elite Ventures Realty managing broker and former teacher, became the first minority to win the board's lone county-wide seat. She defeated retired educator and former District 7 representative Owen Ditchfield and U.S. Army veteran and former Columbus NAACP chapter president Nate Sanderson in the May 20 nonpartisan election. Chambers received 52.57 percent of the vote, Ditchfield 30.68 percent and Sanderson 16.57 percent. Chambers will replace NeighborWorks Columbus president Cathy Williams, who didn't seek re-election.

Attorney and political consultant Frank Myers ousted former educator Beth Harris from the District 8 seat. He received 64.08 percent of the vote to Harris' 35.37 percent.

And the campaigning isn't finished. District 2 incumbent John Wells, the board's senior member with 28 years of service, will face challenger John F. Thomas in a July 22 runoff. Thomas, an Internal Revenue Service agent, received 35.27 percent of the vote. Wells, a businessman with interests mostly in property management and construction, squeaked past John "Bart" Steed, owner of Kar-Tunes Car Stereo, by less than 1 percent of the vote -- 27.58 percent to 26.59 percent. Victor Morales, training and development coordinator for Pratt & Whitney, garnered 10.44 percent.

Time on their side

Meanwhile, the two newly elected representatives are trying to use the extended transition time to their advantage.

Chambers, who already has been attending board meetings, said, "Running a campaign is a laborious job, but the real work begins when you actually take office. The schools are out for the summer, and I plan to use the fall to attend training sessions for new board members and to gather information about the upcoming issues that we will be faced with in FY2015."

The Georgia School Boards Association requires new board members to have 15 hours of training within the fiscal year, but Myers said that's not enough for him.

"I've got to know a lot more about education policy," he said. "I'll go to board meetings. I'll read. I'll do more than the basic stuff. I'll learn as much as I can."

To that end, Williams said she intends to mentor Chambers and Myers. She recalled that when she was first elected in November 2006, she didn't have enough time or assistance to learn what she wanted before she took office in January.

"My goal is to help them," she said, "to prepare them for what it means to be on the board, because nobody did that for me."

Chambers said, "It would be nice to have access to the secure documents that are privy only to board members so that you have a better understanding of what you will be facing come January."

Williams said she intends to ask board attorney Greg Ellington whether she is allowed to share such information. The Ledger-Enquirer asked Ellington that question in a voicemail and email but didn't receive an answer.

Myers, however, said, "I will not be asking for information that is not available to the general public."

Sought or not, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 said, "For those who are newly elected, I have invited them to attend all board meetings, including executive sessions; the superintendent is arranging meetings and training sessions with the key department heads."

Common wish

Regardless of what information they are given, Chambers and Myers expressed a common wish for what the board should accomplish before they take office.

"I believe that it will take teamwork and focus to ensure that this is a smooth transition and to have a board that is efficiently running as a functional governing body," Chambers said.

Myers said he wants the board to "do things to restore credibility."

Asked what those actions could be, Myers said, "Do I expect this board to end no-bid contracts by January and all of a sudden call for a top-to-bottom audit? Nope. That's why I'm supporting John Thomas in the runoff."

Tom Dolan, chairman of the political science and public administration department at Columbus State University, noted the seven-month wait for Myers to take office could help cool off heated emotions.

Last year, on behalf of a majority of the board after a closed meeting, Varner and then-interim Superintendent John Phillips asked Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren to investigate allegations that state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and Myers had threatened one or more board members -- Wells, Harris and District 3 representative Athavia "A.J." Senior -- who wouldn't vote to end the no-bid contract with Columbus law firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild LLP. Boren referred the request to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In September, the attorney general's office confirmed the GBI probe uncovered no crime.

"I suspect those people on the board at odds with Frank Myers appreciate the extra time to make peace or other plans," Dolan said. "It should allow for a smoother transition."

And the board's chairman sure is counting on it.

"My very sincere hope is that all who were involved in the election process develop very short memories and focus on the important tasks at hand," said Varner, executive vice president of Synovus Securities Inc. "Though I don't agree with this election being held in May, the long transition period will allow the new members to attend meetings, learn about their role as a board member and thus, hit the ground running in January."

Longer lame-duck season

Harris insists a longer lame-duck season won't affect the way she represents District 8 during the final seven months of her term.

"I'll do the same work I've always," she said. "I never ever worried about an election when I made a decision. I make decisions based on the right thing to do."

Bankruptcy attorney Fife Whiteside, who was on the initial elected board and represented District 5 from 1994-2008, figures the extended transition period is like discovering a mole on your skin -- it could be benign or malignant.

"Probably what most likely will happen is that there won't be much board activity between now and the end of the year, other than what has to be done," he said. "Or it could be that some of the board members might want to make points before they get off the board."

Whiteside has been there and done that.

In 2008, after he announced he wasn't seeking re-election to a fifth term, Whiteside had "half a dozen ideas I wanted to put on the table that I knew wouldn't get any traction but could set up some decisions in the future."

One of those ideas that fell flat was amending board policy to make the at-large representative automatically be the chairman so the voters would elect the board's leader.

"It depends on the attitude of the board member, but some who are retiring involuntarily may well be embittered or angry," Whiteside said, "and that may come through too. That's not a comment on the particular personalities, but that's how life works sometimes."

Harris emphasized she respects the voters' decision and isn't interested in throwing political hand grenades at the board before she departs.

"I will continue doing my best as a board member until the very end," she said. "Then I will graciously step aside and continue serving my God as He leads."

Varner said, "Though I would not expect this from those who are transitioning off the board, there certainly is the potential for one to lose focus and energy during this very long lame-duck period of time."

Williams, who hasn't been shy about speaking up for a constituent or speaking against the board's majority, said her lame-duck status hasn't changed her approach.

"I will not disconnect," she said. "I will remain engaged, but I'm not going to stir any controversy unless it naturally comes to the table."

To-do list

Asked what they want to see the board accomplish by the end of their terms, Harris and Williams found rare agreement when they mentioned implementing the reorganization of the school system under Superintendent David Lewis, whom the board hired in July.

"It is probably not really something the board can accomplish," Harris said, "but I would like to see our district have a smooth and successful transition into the superintendent's new plan next school year."

Williams said, "I'd like to see at least the final plan the new superintendent has been formulating. We've seen bits and pieces come out, but I'd like to see the totality of the vision, rather than just anticipating the next move."

Varner outlined some of the major moves:

• Complete the division of the school system into West, Central and East regions.

• Finish the rollout of the Reading Wonders program.

• Introduce the enVisionMATH program.

But first, the board must finalize a fiscal year 2015 budget before July 1. Lewis is scheduled to present his preliminary budget Monday during a called meeting at 5 p.m. in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. That's also when he has promised to be more specific about the number of layoffs in the school system. Officials have acknowledged only 31, related to reducing the number of class periods at high schools and middle schools, but word is that more employees have lost their jobs as administrators try to eliminate the originally projected deficit of $10 million to $11 million.

Varner called it "another very challenging budget that's required necessary actions, some of which were very painful to many in our district."

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

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