The 2018 elections for five of the nine seats on the Muscogee County School Board concluded Tuesday night with the realization that all the anti-establishment candidates lost, indicating that the majority of voters are satisfied with the school district’s progress.
That progress includes a 2017 graduation rate of 87.8 percent -- improving for the fifth straight year and surpassing the state average for the fourth straight year and the national average for the third straight year -- and a 2017 College and Career Ready Performance Index of 71.0 out of 100 points, an all-time high for the Muscogee County School District and an improvement for the fourth straight year on the index that measures public education performance in the state.
The votes won’t be official until the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registration meets at 2 p.m. May 29 to finalize them. But here are the most updated results of this year’s school board races:
▪ District 2 (five precincts): Mike Edmondson 47 percent (1,864), Bart Steed 30 percent (1,172) and Sheryl Hobbs McCraine 23 percent (897). Because nobody received a majority of the vote, Edmondson and Steed will compete for the seat in a July 24 runoff. The incumbent, John Thomas, didn’t seek re-election.
▪ District 6 (four precincts): Incumbent Mark Cantrell 56 percent (2,096) and Eddie Obleton38 percent (1,418). Bob Roth dropped out of the race after the ballots were set, but he still received 6 percent (244).
Although he is the incumbent in District 8, Myers also is the board’s reformer in chief, and Schley is a former board chairman who staunchly supports superintendent David Lewis. But the new board members won’t start their four-year terms until January, leaving this current group of representatives seven more months to work with Lewis and his administration.
So what impact will these election results have on the board and the district, and what do these officials hope to accomplish during this transition period?
The Ledger-Enquirer asked the board members and Lewis those questions via email Thursday morning. Lewis, Chambers, Buckner, Thomas, Myers and District 5 representative Laurie McRae replied. Cantrell, Pat Hugley Green of District 1, Vanessa Jackson of District 3 and Cathy Williams of District 7 didn’t reply before Saturday’s deadline. Here’s a summary of their responses:
Myers and Thomas, the board’s most consistent critics, view the election results as a shortsighted turn toward more closely aligning with the superintendent.
“Every reform candidate lost,” Myers said. “I predict at least 20 more years of our public school system being stuck in or near the bottom third in the state rankings, third-graders not being able to read, most of whom will end up in prison or on public assistance, and Columbus not being able to attract industry and jobs because we will continue to operate this public education system that is largely a $270 million-per-year diploma mill.”
Thomas expects the election results will make the board more “ceremonial” and provide a “rubber-stamp holiday” for the administration.
“The anti-Frank, pro-status quo crowd successfully sold the idea in the media and in general that Frank is a ‘negative influence’ on the board,” Thomas said. “Frank and I both wanted to do the actual job of a board member as defined by state law.
“The board's job is to provide oversight on the administration. We were both frustrated in our efforts to provide more transparency and accountability because the majority of the board believes they work for the superintendent, not the other way around. I believe Frank's defeat portends very sad things for public education in Muscogee County.”
Chambers has been the board’s chairwoman since January, when Myers and Thomas worked behind the scenes to oust Green from her leadership position. During her 3 1/2 years on the board, Chambers has been a swing vote along with Cantrell on controversial recommendations, such as last year’s proposal to hire Camelot Education, a for-profit company, to run some of the district’s alternative education programs. So she doesn’t shy away from disagreeing with the administration, but she insists on a proper way to do it.
“The board should be one that focuses on what’s best for kids and that holds the administration accountable in a professional and progressive manner,” Chambers said. “When there is a difference of opinion, there is healthy debate that can be used to achieve the best outcome for students. We all want a great and sustainable Columbus, Georgia, and that sustainability and outcome rest largely in the hands of how we mold and shape tomorrow’s leaders.”
McRae was reluctant to interpret the voting results.
“I am not making any global assumptions based on the elections,” McRae said. “The goals of the school board are the same now as they will be in January. As board members, we need to respect each other's individual perspectives and skills and work together to better our school district.”
No board member feels the impact of Myers and Thomas more than Buckner, who sits between them during the meetings.
“I anticipate less contentious board meetings,” Buckner said. “Frank's idea of the role of board members was different from the required training that we received yearly. This sometimes resulted in controversy on the board. I wish Frank well as he leaves the board at the end of the year. While we may have disagreed on issues, we personally liked each other.”
Regarding the transition from the current board to the new board, Lewis said, “I look forward to working with the new and re-elected board members, as a unified governance team, toward the attainment of our district’s mission and vision in a collaborative and professional manner.”
Lewis said he also is looking forward to the new Spencer High School opening in August and continuing to “execute and monitor our district’s Strategic Plan alongside our recently adopted core values.”
Myers and Thomas contend the remaining and new board members don’t value their power enough.
“I predict that, come January, we will see a whole lot of 9-0 votes,” Myers said. “No-bid contracts will continue to be the norm. Camelot — or perhaps a spin-off of Camelot — will re-emerge and will be enacted, so our special-needs kids will be shuffled off as to not interfere with the constant claim from the administration that we somehow have a ‘premiere’ school district. Any hope of holding people accountable for the failure of our local public education system will be gone for the foreseeable future.”
Thomas said, “Expect more of the same: a consent agenda that doles out millions in no-bid contracts, a board that will pass a budget based on very limited information, and a continued state of public education that ranks Muscogee County Schools at or near the bottom third in the state. Of course, the status-quo crowd will continue to chant, ‘But we're making progress!’”
Chambers suggested board members can find a middle ground between being advocates and adversaries of the administration.
“The board as a whole has to operate as a governance team and decide what legacy we want to leave,” she said. “Will we be the board that works with the administration to ensure all schools in Muscogee County are removed from the failing list? Will we be the board that works collaboratively to build strong community partnerships? Will we be the board that works hard to create an environment where more students graduate with college credit before leaving high school?
“There are great things we can do as a board and still maintain our individual values and ideals. We must be willing to work towards the common goal of building a strong tomorrow by creating a strong educational system.”