When the results of the July 22 runoff capped this year's Muscogee County School Board elections, we learned that three of the nine seats will be filled by new representatives in January -- the most newcomers in the 21-year history of the elected governing body.
So how will the rookies make a smooth transition from campaigning to governing? How will the veterans help them? And how will the board's one-third turnover affect its function?
This past week, the Ledger-Enquirer interviewed former, current and incoming board members to gain insight into those questions.
Some observers see the significance of this year's school board elections being not that the two incumbents facing opposition were ousted, but by such a resounding margin.
In the July 22 runoff, John F. Thomas, an IRS agent with no political experience, trounced District 2 incumbent John Wells, the board's most senior member with 28 years of service and a businessman with interests mostly in property management and construction. Thomas received nearly 80 percent of the vote (1,977) and Wells 20 percent (503).
In the May 20 election, attorney and political consultant Frank Myers decisively defeated first-term District 8 representative and former educator Beth Harris. Myers received 64 percent (1,507 votes) and Harris 35 percent (830 votes).
The other new representative will be in the board's lone county-wide seat, which was left wide open because NeighborWorks Columbus president Cathy Williams didn't run for a third term. Former teacher Kia Chambers, broker/owner of of ERA Elite Ventures Realty and Elite Ventures Leasing and Management, won a three-way race May 20 with 53 percent (12,306) of the vote. Owen Ditchfield, a retired educator and former District 7 representative, finished second with 31 percent (7,189) and former NAACP Columbus chapter president and retired soldier Nate Sanderson finished third with 17 percent (3,880 votes).
Bankruptcy and commercial attorney Fife Whiteside, who served on the board for 15 years (1994-2008), called the results "a huge, thundering indictment of the way the board has been doing business."
Wells and Harris were among the board members who voted two years ago -- without explanation that night -- against retiring superintendent Susan Andrews' nine recommended personnel moves. Thomas, whose wife teaches in the district, has mentioned that vote as part of his motivation to challenge Wells.
Thomas wasn't reached to comment for this story. Williams said the election results sent this message: "Abuse of power will not be tolerated in this community."
Whiteside concluded, "It's more than just three new board members. It's three new board members with a mandate to do things differently."
Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 wouldn't go that far.
"It would be hard to deny that there's either collectively or individually with those members some level of frustration with the board as a whole or them individually," said Varner, executive vice president at Synovus Securities. "That's undeniable. Now, whether there's a larger message attached to that for the board or the school system, I'm not reading into that at this point."
Whiteside said Thomas' victory in particular also shows old-fashioned campaigning still can succeed.
"He did intense, street-by-street, shoe-leather campaigning the last three weekends prior to the runoff," said Whiteside, who represented District 5 from 1994 to 2008, when he didn't run for re-election and Varner replaced him. "That turned up the high level of contempt people had for John (Wells)."
David Ebron, a licensed clinical social worker, served on the board when it was appointed by the grand jury and after it became an elected governing body in 1993. He didn't run for re-election in 2004, when Pat Hugley Green, an insurance professional with Carolyn Hugley State Farm Agency, replaced him in the District 1 seat.
Ebron's experience tells him relationships matter on the board.
"You govern based on relationships," Ebron said. "If people don't have good relationships, they become more selfish and arrogant. They become focused on their own personal needs and goals. You have to focus on the needs of the whole before your personal needs."
Williams chaired the board for two years before deciding not to continue in January 2013, when the board approved Varner as chairman. All board members are responsible for its function, but the leadership comes from the person with the gavel, she said.
"We're all grown-ups, but I think it's on the board chair to ensure board members are reaching out to new board members," Williams said.
Varner intends to ask his fellow board members to vote for him as chairman again in 2015. How the board works together, he said, "will only be determined by time. I think the personalities will be what they're going to be. I'm not overly worried about them. We've had strong personalities on the board now, and we will come January. That's fine with me. That's more a positive than a negative. That why they're there, to represent their positions and speak their minds.
"The one thing that could create disharmony on the board is where some lack of respect for the other person's opinion is voiced or acted upon and creates a lack of trust among the other members, and that would be damaging."
From outsider to insider
After the new representatives join the board in January, they must be mindful they aren't outsiders anymore, Ebron said.
"Even if the vote is 5-4, you can't say, 'I didn't do that; they did,'" Ebron said. "You're the board now. That's the board's position, and you have to understand you're a part of that. You aren't going to get everything you want. Many board members think, 'If they would just listen to me, I can give them the right answer.' But as a new board member, you can't move too fast. The school system is a huge system. You don't learn it overnight. So many segments interplay and interact with each other. You really have to be open to learning."
Brenda Storey, who served on the board from 1994 through 2010, when Action Buildings chief executive officer Mark Cantrell defeated her in District 6, said the board must strive to create consensus.
"You look at the things you can agree on and work from there," said Storey, a retired SunTrust vice president. "Sometimes people come on the board with one issue, but you need to put that issue aside sometimes to find out the strength that everyone brings and build upon those strengths to get that consensus.
"Whether it's something as simple as looking at the lunchroom costs or as critical as hiring a new superintendent, you've got to be able to work as a unit. If you become fractured, then everything about the school district becomes fractured."
New board members need to quickly move from campaign mode to governing mode, Williams said.
"You have to take the blinders off and see the big picture," Williams said. "That's the hardest thing, because campaigns get mired in one or two issues. In governing, there's a myriad of issues."
Criticizing your opponent and promoting yourself during the campaign must stop before you take your board seat, Storey said.
"A lot of times during the political campaign, you take a broad swipe at the board, but no one person is going to fix the board," Storey said. "You're not going to be effective if you think you're going to be that person. It's going to take each person working together as a unit. If you can't respect the person, you should respect the position."
Myers, who publicly criticized the board even before he became a candidate, isn't about to hold hands with the established board members and sing "Kumbaya."
"My plan is to be respectful and tolerant of all of my new colleagues," Myers said, "but I have no intention whatsoever of participating in the failed policies of the past."
Myers and Thomas had similar main planks in their campaign platforms: ending no-bid contracts and directing the savings into the classrooms, conducting a top-to-bottom audit of the school district and increasing board transparency and resident input.
"I'm going to worry about keeping the promises I made to the people that elected me," Myers said. "I'm not going to worry about the rest of that stuff. Whether or not there's going to be significant change hinges on the present board members. They now know what the public thinks of them. Two of their colleagues, the only ones with opposition this year, one lost in a landslide and one lost in a hurricane and tsunami."
Myers also has an eye on the next election cycle, when Varner, Green, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3 and Shannon Smallman of District 7 would be judged by the voters if they run again.
"This election showed the public overwhelmingly supports my positions, and we'll have the chance to put them before the board members," Myers said. "There will be a record that they'll be held accountable for before the voters. That's not a threat. That's just the way the system works."
Asked whether he agrees with the suggestion that the new and current board members should get to know each other one-on-one or in small groups away from the boardroom, Myers said, "No, it's not necessary. This is business. The last time I was reached out to by a couple of these board members, the GBI showed up at my door."
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 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 don't want to socialize with people who abused the legal process and tried to get me in prison," Myers said.
Above the fray
As for Chambers, she campaigned above the fray because she didn't oppose an incumbent. After she was elected, she went to lunch with Buckner, Smallman and Williams, who answered her questions and offered their advice.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with camaraderie," Chambers said. "It makes it a lot easier to agree to disagree and not allow stumbling blocks to get in the way of issues."
Williams insists such socialization helps a board function well.
"You don't build relationships just from business," Williams said. "You build relationships based on talking about your kids and travel and life in general."
Chambers hopes such a positive attitude prevails over conflicting personalities and raw politics.
"It's an easy transition when you are willing to compromise for the greater good," she said. "Only when you take the focus off the main thing, there's a lack of cohesiveness. If we look at the facts and do what's best for kids, you create a synergy that's best for a quality education for all of our kids in Muscogee County."