By Daniel Silliman
The people in the Clayton County Board of Education's District 5 are skeptical, and maybe even a little bit cynical, according to the six school board candidates trying to earn their trust and their votes.
"They're looking for newness, and honesty," said Robert Green, a retired Navy man running for the seat. "They don't feel they've been told the truth at all times, and that makes them very skeptical. They question your motives. And I don't blame them, because I'm doing the same thing."
When Jennifer Talley, a Riverdale resident and a mental health counselor, goes knocking on neighborhood doors campaigning for the seat, the first thing people ask her is if she's on the board now.
"That's the first question out of their mouths," Talley said, "and when I say, 'No,' they're like, 'Well, as long as you're not on the board now, because the people on the board now, they've got to go.'"
The current BOE District 5 board member, Rod Johnson, is not running for re-election. There are, however, five Democrats vying for the seat in the July 15 primary: Talley; Green; Ophelia Burroughs, a retired Jonesboro High School English teacher; Trena Morris, a graduate medical education coordinator; Basil Lue, an English-educated construction manager; and cosmetologist, Phyllis Moore.
There also is one Republican running for the seat, Diana Marie Nicholson, a former Jonesboro High School math teacher.
All six report they're having to work to convince the voting public to trust them. Some are responding to skepticism with promises of transparency. Others are offering promises of tranquility.
Green, along with most of the BOE District 5 candidates, said the key to being a good board member is transparency, and encouraging public interaction. He said that would be his top priority as a school board member.
He said the first thing he would do, to set the board back in the right direction, would be publishing the minutes of all the board meetings -- not just the monthly meetings, after a month-long delay -- and publishing a quarterly newsletter.
"I believe if there was more transparency at the beginning of these practices, the problems, leading to the possible loss of accreditation, could have been prevented," Green said.
Trena Morris said she learned about the need to engage and empower people at the Clayton County Grassroots Leadership program, and wants to take that idea to the school board.
"The public trust has to be restored in the board of education," she said. "We're going to have to engage the community more, because they're stakeholders. They really need to be represented, and I really feel like we should engage them more."
Morris, who has been a key person in the county's back-to-school prayer rallies, said she would engage the community by broadcasting board meetings live on TV and by putting more information out about the meetings and actions.
Ophelia Burroughs, who taught English in Jonesboro from 1979 to 2002, said the public needs to be shown their board member will always remember to keep children first.
"The first question that comes up is, 'Are we going to lose accreditation?'" Burroughs said. "Even little children who can barely say the word 'accreditation' ask the question ... The children are what we need to think about, not ourselves. We should never have personal agendas. People were caught up in what they wanted, and what they wanted to do for people, and they forgot about the children of Clayton County."
Burroughs believes her 23 years of teaching experience and her endorsement by a teacher's union, the Clayton County Education Association, demonstrates that she won't forget the children.
The other teacher running for the seat, Diana Marie Nicholson, said she will always remember the children affected by the school system because she has two of her own, ages 4 and 2 1/2.
"I'm in it for my two children," Nicholson said. "We have to realize this is about the children of Clayton County, and it really doesn't look like that's what the current board members are in it for, anymore ... You leave your problems at the door. If we just leave personal agendas at the door, if we just keep our children in mind and keep our egos in check, then you would never hear about Clayton County in the news."
Basil Lue thinks everyone's set their sights too low, though. He said everyone's focused, with the accreditation crisis, on the minimum possible standard instead of the maximum standard. The board and the students shouldn't be content with a passing grade, according to Lue, but should seek a perfect score.
"What is good in the school system now? Whatever is happening there now, I feel like they're running on 50 percent capacity. The people who are going to school in Clayton County have to compete with students in China and Japan and India. The child who is going to school in Japan goes to school 12 months a year and sometimes 13 months a year. That is one month, they go to school night and day," said Lue.
He said students could be motivated by rewards and praise. He said his experience in construction taught him that the only way to succeed was to think big, exceeding capacity and pushing forward.
At least one candidate doesn't think the incumbent board was all that bad, though. Phyllis Moore, a self-employed cosmetologist, said she never had "any complaint" with Rod Johnson, who is currently serving on the school board, representing District 5.
Moore said she rents her Jonesboro home from Johnson.
"I felt that he did a good job," she said, "but I'm not Rod Johnson. I'm Phyllis Moore."
Moore said she would work to get more parents involved in the school system, and said she's personally qualified to sit on the board because she has been so involved herself.
"I've always been the parent who is there every morning," she said, "in the middle of the hallway, every morning, asking students to follow the rules and asking them to have a nice day."
Moore said she would, if elected, do more with the school's robo-call system, and improve the web site.
Rebuilding the trust of the members of electorate may not ultimately be about getting them involved, though, but about becoming a board that works together and doesn't make it onto the evening news.
Jennifer Talley, echoing Nicholson, said the most important part of soothing the skepticism and the cynicism toward the board will be board unity and cooperation.
"There are some really strong personalities among the candidates," Talley said. "Team work is really going to be key ... The priority has to be that we go forward, from January, as a unified board, and have one vision, one mission, and speak with one voice. That is the primary thing I would like to see happen."