By Curt Yeomans
Edward Rigdon and Alieka Anderson see a mess of infighting and distrust when they watch the Clayton County Board of Education conduct its affairs during public meetings.
They both lay the blame for the district's woes at the feet of board members, who, they say, have lost their way and do not have the best interest of the children at heart. Both candidates say the board needs to get away from public fights, an atmosphere of distrust, and actions which appear to shut the community out of the school system's affairs.
Rigdon, a Conley resident, and Anderson, an Ellenwood resident, are the candidates running to fill the board of education's vacant District 8 seat in a July 15 special election. The seat has been empty since the board voted to declare it vacant in March.
"We have good kids... our kids are doing exceptional things," Anderson said. "The problem with the board is the people are infighting, and bickering. We need people on the board who can work together. If we work together, this could be a great county."
Rigdon, the chairman of the marketing department at Georgia State University, said he is the best candidate to fill the position because his job at Georgia State requires him to perform several of the duties a board member would do, such as overseeing other people, dealing with budgets and working with accrediting agencies, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' higher education branch.
Anderson, the treasurer of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, said she is the better candidate, though, because she already works with children. She's been teaching for the last six years, although she declined to say in which district she works. Anderson said she has to work as part of a team with administrators, other teachers and students to accomplish goals as a teacher.
She also said she has experience with budgets, because she has to work with budgets -- both in the workplace and at home. Anderson said she is in the process of opening a Dollar Store in Lovejoy. "Our economy is suffering," she said. "I'm trying to bring back small businesses by starting my own."
Rigdon said the board of education should be like a board of directors, with the superintendent acting like a chief executive officer. He also said the board needs to figure out which goals it wants to meet, come up with a strategic plan to achieve those goals, and then stick to that plan.
If the board does not create a strategic plan, which Rigdon said has not been done for a while, then the faces will change, but the board will keep finding itself in a situation where the school system's accreditation is in jeopardy.
"The whole county is kind of paralyzed right now," he said. "If we don't fix the school board, then the schools don't get better, and if the schools don't get better, then the county can't improve."
Anderson disagrees -- to a degree -- with Rigdon's comments about a strategic plan. "We have one," she said. "We just need to re-establish it. the board's duties are to establish policies and procedures, which improve the quality of education available to the children of Clayton County."
Anderson said two of the things she would focus on -- if elected -- are safeguarding the district's accreditation and improving teacher retention rates. The latter, even though the district has had teacher-retention rates near, or above, 90 percent for the last two years.
Beyond saving the accreditation, Anderson said the school system can be improved if it begins offering more theme and magnet schools. The district has made some small steps in that direction over the last year with the establishment of a math and science theme school at Rex Mill Middle School, and a fine arts magnet program at Mt. Zion High School.
However, Anderson said the children of the county would be better served if more of those programs were established throughout the county. "It would help children decide what they want to be after they finish high school," she said. "Also, it keeps their interest level up, so they won't get bored with school. We don't need vouchers to send our children to other schools. We need theme schools."
Rigdon said one of the keys to fixing the school system is removing special interest groups from the picture. He also said the way to break the influence of special interest groups is to get more residents actively involved in the school system.
His plan for doing this involves three phases: The board should distribute all information available to the public; The public should have its opportunities to offer input which is taken seriously by the board, and board members should then consider that input before taking action.
"Why did the special interests capture the attention of the board members?" Rigdon said. "It's because there weren't enough members of the public getting involved and making their voices heard. The special interest groups are why we are here on the verge of losing our accreditation.
"If every member of the community would get involved, then the special interest groups would lose their voice."
Anderson also said the community's voice is the most powerful way to silence the special interest groups. She was a member of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE) for five years, but said she left that organization a year ago and joined the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE).
"When I saw Dr. Trotter and his organization was not acting in my best interests, I decided it was time to leave," she said.
Anderson has been involved in grassroots efforts to address the accreditation issue since November 2007, when the Clayton News Daily first reported that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) was concerned about the actions of board members. As a member of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, she is involved in recall efforts against District 9 board member Sandra Scott.
She is now concerned about a proposed policy revision, which would remove public comment from the board's monthly business meeting, and establish a new meeting reserved solely for public comment. "The public should be allowed to address the board during the business meetings," she said. "The public has a right to address the board whenever it wants. The public input should stay where it is...
"The board members need to put away their egos and put their focus back on serving the children. The people elected them, and that's who they should answer to."
Rigdon has been a resident of Clayton County since 1995. He lives with his wife, Mary, and their two children, Hannah and David, on a farm in Conley. He holds a doctorate in marketing from the University of Alabama. He came from a military family, which moved around a lot when he was a child, but he credits his success to the public schools he attended.
"The public schools gave me opportunities to succeed, and the 52,000 students in Clayton County schools deserve the same opportunities," Rigdon said. "They don't deserve to have adults messing with their futures ... Maybe, ultimately, that's why I can't turn my back on them."
His own children, however, do not attend public schools. They attend private schools in DeKalb County, because Rigdon and his wife thought those schools offered opportunities which were not offered in Clayton County Public Schools. Rigdon said his daughter may be moved back to a public school, though, because she has reached a level in math where her private school cannot adequately help her grow as a student.
Anderson, who is currently working on a doctoral degree from Argosy University, was born in Atlanta, but she has called Clayton County home for the last five and a half years. She said her son, Brian, will start school next year, but she will not enroll him in Clayton County schools. He will attend the school she works in for the time being, because of the issues surrounding the district's accreditation.
"I want the accreditation issue sorted out before I enroll him in this school system," Anderson said. "It's too uncertain at this time."
While the two candidates are campaigning for votes, though, the specter of Norreese Haynes, the last person to occupy the seat, continues to linger over the race. The board voted to declare the seat vacant because a Clayton County Police investigation determined he lived in an apartment in Marietta.
Haynes claims he has always lived in the county, though, and he is involved in a legal battle to stop the special election from taking place. If he is successful, the campaigns of Rigdon and Anderson could become moot.
"I'm trying to create informed voters ... If it gets to July 15 and the election doesn't end up happening, if I have done that, then I've still done something good for the county," Rigdon said.
"If he is put back on the board, there will be a recall effort," Anderson said. "Why would you stay on the board and continue to be a problem, if you are really interested in putting the children first?"