By Curt Yeomans
The eight people vying to replace former Clayton County Board of Education District 6 representative Eddie White are concerned that a struggling school system is going to drag down their entire community.
Some of the candidates have children, or grandchildren, in the school system, while others are former educators. Some are concerned that an ailing school system is going to drive away businesses. Others have grown frustrated with the board.
"The county is really at a crossroads," said candidate James Stanley, 61, a self-employed accountant. "If we don't get it right this time, we're going to suffer the consequences for a long time to come."
White's resignation in late April left the district without representation for nearly two months. There are seven democrats vying to replace him, and another candidate seeking to get on the ballot as an independent.
The seven Democratic candidates are Stanley; John Askew, 63, a retired Wachovia Corporation bank operations manager; Mary Baker, 43, a pre-school teacher at the Children's Learning Center at First Baptist Church-Jonesboro; Glenn Dowell, 61, the owner of the Riverdale-based supplemental education services provider, Youth Empowerment Project; William Hill, 39, a minister who is the executive director of New Birth South Metropolitan Church's Community Impact Center; Vernetta Reeves, 46, an administrative assistant for the legal services division of the state Department of Human Resources, and Mabel Swaby, 62, a retired Atlanta Public Schools elementary school teacher and Clayton County Juvenile Court Appointed Special Advocate.
The candidates took time from their campaign schedules on Wednesday to talk with the Clayton News Daily. Candidate Vernetta Reeves could not be reached at phone numbers listed for her office, and home.
Marcela Bodkin, the owner of a MailBoxes Express LLC, is seeking to get on the ballot as an independent candidate. She needs 860 signatures to get on the ballot. Since there are no Republicans running for this seat, the next District 6 representative will be chosen this summer. She is running on a platform which includes establishing a contract-review process, and end-of-the-year financial reviews for the school board members.
However, it was the negative effects the school system's woes can have on the community which propelled many candidates to seek the District 6 seat.
"It stagnates the growth of the county as a whole in terms of economic development," said candidate William Hill, of the threat of a loss of accreditation.
"Businesses won't want to come here," echoed candidate Mary Baker, "because their employees will not want to enroll their children in this school system ... Houses won't sell, and the vacant houses will bring more crime to the area,"
"I see so many vacant houses in my neighborhood, and a lot of people who can't sell their homes are just renting them out ... It makes the community go down. Up until now, I felt safe in my community, but now I don't feel safe, because I don't know who my neighbors are anymore," added candidate Mabel Swaby.
A struggling economy and housing market can create a burden for future board members because one of their duties will be to approve the school system's annual budget. The responsibility for creating a balanced budget falls on the district's chief financial officer, who answers to the superintendent, but it is the board's ultimate responsibility for approving a budget which does not include excessive spending.
"We need to put together a five-year strategic plan for spending and not just look at the budget one year at a time," said John Askew. "Some tough decisions have to be made. We cannot spend as much on programs, and eliminating programs should only be used as a last resort, if nothing else works. But we cannot cut sports so we can keep fine arts, just like we can't cut fine arts so we can keep sports." He vows to bring some "business sense" to the board.
"Well, we can't just raise taxes on a whim," said James Stanley. "We just have to make sure we're not wasting money. We also have to cut costs when we can."
Baker said that: "People need to realize it's not the board's duty to do the budget. There is a chief financial officer who is responsible for that. Now, as a member of Citizens Budget Committee for the last four years, I can tell you that we have invited board members to attend our meetings and hear our concerns several times over the years, but very few of them ever took us up on that offer."
Many of the candidates said it was, in fact, the board's inability to stick to the powers and duties outlined in its own policies that got the district in trouble.
"The current board failed in terms of vision and mission," said Glenn Dowell. "We should develop a collaborative spirit involving all of the stakeholders, ranging from the chamber of commerce, to the PTAs, to all of the teachers associations. If we work together, we can make this school system one of the best in the country."
"There needs to be a cohesive, working relationship between the board, the superintendent, the administration, the teachers and every other employee of the school system," Hill added. "The board members need to learn to disagree, without being disrespectful. If we can do that, then we can work together to build a world class school system."
"We need to have most of our meetings in an open setting," Askew offered. "We should only have a closed meeting when we are discussing a person who might be humiliated if we discuss them in public. But contracts, bidding, the budget and strategic planning all need to happen during open meetings.
"People need to get out and research the candidates," Askew added. "Not just for the school board, but for all of the races. Clayton County could be the gem of the metro Atlanta area, but we've got to put the right people in office."
"The public should get involved and make sure the candidate who rises to the surface is the best candidate, and the people should vote on experience and qualifications, not on race," said Dowell, who knows that one of the questions facing his candidacy is how he would juggle being on the school board and running a supplemental education services provider, which receives federal, Title I grant funding through the school system.
"The Youth Empowerment Project does business with several school systems," he said. "If an attorney determines it's a conflict of interest, then we simply won't do business with the [Clayton County] school system."
Dowell, in turning his attention to outside influences on school board decisions, had said after a candidates' forum on Monday that voters should not vote for someone who is tied to "political and external interests." He then denounced the notion that he will be a puppet of Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE) President John Trotter.
Dowell, who has occasionally been seen with Trotter outside board meetings, said he rarely sees eye-to-eye with the teachers association leader. "People keep coming at me, saying 'Oh you're another Trotterite,'" Dowell said. "If that is the only thing they have in their arsenal, then they don't have much ... I challenge anyone to go on my web site, voteforglenndowell.com, read everything on there, and make me out a liar."
Despite the board's problems, however, the candidates feel there is a foundation within the school system for positive growth. "We have a lot of good things going on in our schools," said Baker. "We have the two-time national Mock Trial champions; the International Baccalaureate program; the Elite Scholars program; the Dual language charter schools; Oliver Elementary School has won two stock market state championships. We need to do a better job of communicating to the parents what is working,"
"Every success allows for improvement," added William Hill. "We need to take the successful programs and duplicate them across the county. If something is working well in the northern part of the county, then we need to duplicate it in the southern, eastern and western parts of the county."