As the divisive votes mounted last year, Muscogee County School Board chairwoman Cathy Williams felt her support slip away.
Thursday, she said she won’t seek to continue in the position when the board decides its chairmanship and vice chairmanship for 2013 during Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting.
That leaves vice chairman Rob Varner of District 5 as the only board member who has asked to be considered for the chairmanship and Pat Hugley Green of District 1 as the only one vying for the vice chairmanship, although other nominations still could be made at the table Tuesday.
Williams is the nine-member panel’s lone at-large representative, the only school board position all Muscogee County voters can elect.
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Amid the board’s search for a superintendent now 10 months after Susan Andrews announced her retirement Williams wants to “calm the waters.”
"By withdrawing my name and asking those who supported me to support the new leadership with unanimous consent, maybe that will help us move forward,” Williams said. “I just think it’s healthier.”
Williams cited the following controversies as contributing to the disunity on the board:
The appointment of Britt David Magnet Academy principal Ronie Collins as chief academic officer over elementary education director Karon Greyer, who subsequently retired.
The reinstatement of Columbus High principal Marvin Crumbs after he was reassigned for showing an offensive video to his faculty.
The rejection of Andrews’ seven principal appointments and two other administrators, which prompted Andrews to retire a month earlier than planned. The board then approved the same candidates when interim superintendent John Phillips Jr. brought them back.
Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Shannon Smallman of District 7 said they would have chosen Williams for the chairmanship, but they also said they support Varner.
"Cathy has worked hard to keep the board together, but it has been too divided,” said Smallman, who was elected July 31 and joined the board for her first meeting Monday. “I hate that she’s out, but I look forward to having Rob as chair.”
Buckner praised Williams for her command of the issues but has said her outspoken nature sometimes undermined her.
"Public perception is important,” Buckner said. “It helps in terms of how the board feels about itself. If a new chair is a new start, I don’t know if it literally helps, but it may help in perception.”
Williams said Varner “would be a fine chairman.”
Varner is the only other board member the Ledger-Enquirer reached Thursday for reaction to Williams’ news. He said he isn’t surprised and vowed to do a “better job” of communicating with the public.
"I don’t think this is a Cathy thing, but for whatever reason over the last few years, we’ve been reluctant or scared to be forthcoming with things that are no reason to be scared about,” Varner said. “All we do is harm ourselves when we do that, because it makes you think we’re hiding something.”
“ If I’m elected Tuesday night, my job will be to repair that damage. We’ve got to put the gas pedal on hiring a superintendent, but, secondarily to that, we’ve got to have the public understand we aren’t as incompetent as we may appear to be, and much of that may be self-inflicted.”
For example, Varner said, Monday night’s closed session about a “personnel” issue was followed by a unanimous vote without discussion to sign a contract with a new superintendent search firm. The action item and contract weren’t part of the agenda. Georgia Press Association general counsel David Hudson has said the board violated the state’s open meetings law, but Varner said the board violated only common sense.
"We did exactly what we said we were going to do in that executive session,” Varner said, “but why didn’t we do a better job of explaining it?”
The chairman isn’t paid more than the rest of the board members, who receive $1,000 per month.
"It’s more grief than glee,” Williams said with a laugh.
The chairman’s responsibilities include administrative functions, signing contracts, assigning committees, attending meetings of other organizations and generally representing the board in the community.
The chairman also is considered the board’s spokesman. That is the role Williams is most eager to relinquish after two years as chairwoman. She is looking forward to speaking as the board member representing all of Muscogee County which she has done for six years instead of the board.
"I had to say exactly what the board wanted me to say or what the consensus wanted me to say,” she said. “It wasn’t my voice. I had to temper myself, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good for that very special position as the at-large member.”