A new chairperson will lead the Muscogee County School Board in 2019

Kia Chambers
Kia Chambers Courtesy of Kia Chambers

The Muscogee County School Board will have a new chairperson next year.

Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone county-wide representative, won’t seek another year as the leader.

Chambers alluded to this decision during Monday night’s board meeting. Then she confirmed it in an emailed interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

“As I stated at Monday night’s meeting, I appreciate the members of the board for allowing me to represent them as chairman of the board in 2018,” she said. “However, in order for me to finish my PhD, it is necessary for me to be laser-focused on my last few courses and begin writing my dissertation in the upcoming year.

“As the at-large representative, I will continue to uphold my responsibilities of representing each school within the Muscogee County School District as well as every constituent city-wide.”

Columbus voters elect the school board members to four-year terms. Then, each January, the board members elect the chair and vice chair to one-year terms.

This past January, behind-the-scenes maneuvering culminated in a coup without public discussion. By the narrowest margin, with only five votes, Chambers became chairwoman as she and John Thomas of District 2, Vanessa Jackson of District 3, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8 ousted Pat Hugley Green of District 1.

They are the same board members who, by a one-vote margin May 15, 2017, rejected the superintendent David Lewis’ controversial recommendation to hire Camelot Education, a private, for-profit company based in Austin, Texas, to run three alternative education programs for $6.4 million annually, serving students with severe emotional or behavioral problems, severe discipline code violations and those who are over-age and under-credited.

Green, who was chairwoman for one year, received four votes to remain as chairwoman: from herself, Naomi Buckner of District 4, Laurie McRae of District 5 and Cathy Williams of District 7.

Now, the question is: Who will succeed Chambers?

Five of the nine folks who will make that decision answered the L-E’s query before deadline. The only one to declare whom they will vote for to be the chairperson is McRae, who said she is supporting Green.

“She has proven leadership ability, and personally, she has encouraged me from day one to take an active role with the school board,” McRae said. “With Mrs. Hugley Green, I have always felt that my opinion is valued, even when we disagree.”

Green, who chaired the board from 2017-18, said, “I appreciate my colleagues asking if I would consider serving as 2019 MCSD board chair. I answered yes and will submit my name for the January 2019 vote, and I look forward to a magnificent 2019.

“I value public education and the opportunity to work with community leaders and represent the school board while serving as an officer with the Georgia School Boards Association. I am grateful for the support of my colleagues. The continual focus is to ensure that we keep the needs of all students first and preserve access to a free and appropriate public education for all. It is important that we celebrate the progress towards excellence for students, employees and the community.”

It’s unclear whether Green will have any opposition. Cantrell, the vice chairman, told the L-E the day of the January vote that he wanted to be chairman but nobody had enough support to ensure a majority — until that night, when the vote revealed that a deal had been struck.

Cantrell wasn’t reached this week to comment for this story.

Buckner, who will begin her fifth four-year term in January, said she doesn’t want to chair the board.

“I would feel more inhibited to speak frankly,” she said. “I would focus too much and sometimes unnecessarily on avoiding controversy.

Mike Edmondson, who will be the District 2 representative Jan. 1, after Thomas didn’t run for re-election, won’t pursue the chairmanship now, but he is interested in eventually serving in that position.

“I think, given that I will be new to the board, that I should focus on my district, my expertise and working with the collective board,” he said. “At some future point, if it seemed a good idea, sure, I would not mind chairing. I have held a number of other leadership positions across time, but I think I need to be ‘the new guy’ right now.”

He will be one of two “new guys” on the board in 2019, but the other one is actually a former board member: Philip Schley, who served 21 years on the board (1972-81 and 1998-2010), including nine as chairman, and defeated Myers in May for the District 8 seat.

Williams (2010-12) also has chaired the board, Buckner noted, and along with Green and Schley they “have already demonstrated good leadership and could lead again if it’s convenient for them.”

Edmondson said he needs more time to decide whom he wants to be the new chairperson.

“I would think it appropriate to talk with anyone who is interested in the position,” Edmondson said, “and evaluate their positions and whether they would be the spokesperson I would want us to have, collectively and individually. Having not yet done that, I should think that it is prudent to listen and not yet speak on the topic definitively.”

Chambers didn’t mention a name she would support as chairperson, but she made a suggestion.

“I think every board member should have an opportunity to serve in the capacity as chairman,” she said. “The person who succeeds me should be someone who continues to respect the individuality of each board member. In order to achieve the common goal of providing the best education possible for all students in the Muscogee County School District, it’s imperative that the chair facilitates a culture of unity among the board.”

Chambers described the chairperson’s role.

“The position of the chair by policy is the presiding officer at all board meetings and is tasked with preserving order and decorum,” she said. “The chair works with the superintendent to set the agenda for each meeting. The board chair position does not negate the responsibilities of the district leaders. That is still determined by the people who elected them in their respective areas. The board chair doesn’t speak directly for the board. Only through a vote is there a collective thought that can be verbalized from the board. That collective thought is often times reiterated by the board chair. The board chair has the administrative responsibility to read and sign all contracts and agreements that have been approved via vote from the board.”

Edmondson considers the chairperson “a spokesperson, part of the greater group but designated to speak for us all when expediency is a factor, as well as a master of ceremonies, after a fashion, at the board meetings.”

Buckner said, “I don’t think any board member has advantages over others. All board members are the same with equal rights and responsibilities of serving their districts and the school district as a whole. However, the board chair functions as the voice of the board. He or she is the one who presents the board’s position on issues to the media, organizations and sometimes to the superintendent. He or she should have the respect of other board members and be able to run board meetings orderly and efficiently.”

McRae called the chairperson’s role “very important as the chair acts as spokesperson for the board, helps set the agenda and acts as liaison with administration.”

Buckner said she was surprised by Chambers’ decision but appreciates the timing.

“I think she made the announcement early to give board members the opportunity to think about if they wanted to be the chairperson and to give them time to solicit support,” Buckner said.

Buckner praised Chambers’ performance as chairwoman.

“She studied and was always prepared for the board meetings,” Buckner said. “She has good communication skills, which I think is a major requirement for anyone to be the voice and represent the school board and education.”

Asked which MCSD board accomplishment she is most proud of during her tenure as chairwoman, Chambers said, “I believe that I brought a level of respect and dedication to the board chair position. I set the expectation that representatives should respect the diversity of opinions and perspectives of fellow board members, even when those perspectives are different from your own.”

Asked what regrets she has as chairwoman, Chambers said, “I am not one to live my life with regrets. I approach every role and life experience as a learning opportunity. This position has allowed me to contribute my ideology about education and equipped me to handle the complexity that will come with future leadership positions.”

Mark Rice, 706-341-2577, @MarkRiceLE.