Surprise turnaround: Varner retains chairmanship of Muscogee County School Board

In a surprise turnaround, Rob Varner has retained the chairmanship of the Muscogee County School Board after it had appeared earlier this month that he didn't have enough support.

Varner, the District 5 representative, told the Ledger-Enquirer on Jan. 7 that he won't be a candidate on the May 24 ballot. Qualifying for the nonpartisan local races is March 7-11. He also said then that he wants to remain during his final year in office as chairman, which he has been for three years, despite not seeking a third term.

Interviews with board members indicated that Kia Chambers, who was elected in 2014 as the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, had enough of the votes lined up to take the gavel from Varner. But some of that support slipped away by the time Tuesday night's annual election of the board's officers came up on the agenda.

Voting for Varner, along with himself, in the 6-1-2 tally were vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, John Thomas of District 2, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8. Shannon Smallman of District 7, who participated via telephone because she was out of town, voted no; Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Chambers abstained.

Thomas and Myers, who along with Chambers are the board's newest members, had been uncommitted - at least publicly - so they seemed to be the swing votes. After the meeting, they explained their decisions, and Chambers and Varner expressed their reactions.

"No matter who I voted for, my position politically on the board wasn't going to change," Thomas said. "I was still going to be on the short end of a bunch of 2-7 votes, most likely. So the only thing that I had to work with in making my decision was the fact that I've seen what to expect from Rob. That's all I can say."

Myers echoed Thomas' point about being frustrated by the lack of support for their quest to bring what they call more accountability and transparency to the board and the district.

"Neither Rob nor Kia have been very helpful with our initiatives that we've tried to do in our first year, but Rob is a known quantity," Myers said. "He tries to be fair in the meetings. He lets everybody have their say. And that means a lot. We never can figure out where Kia is coming from."

Chambers, whom the L-E interviewed before Thomas and Myers, said, "Each board member had a choice to make, and they've spoken. There were some last-minute changes, of course, but I always keep my word."

Varner declined to discuss individual votes and the apparent shift in support back to him, but he said he is grateful the majority of the board wants him to serve as chairman during his final year in office.

"I've enjoyed both the service on the board and working closely with the superintendent as board chair," he said. "I just appreciate that they feel like I'm competent enough and I represent the board well enough to continue serving in this capacity."

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