By Curt Yeomans
Several candidates for seven Clayton County Board of Education seats said Corrective Superintendent John Thompson is overpaid and should not have been hired to lead the district, during a forum hosted by the Clayton County Council of PTAs on Monday.
Seven candidates addressed the controversial hiring of Thompson, which occurred last month. Some of the people vying for school board seats said they believe the money involved in Thompson's 14-month contract, which includes a $285,000 base salary and a $2,000 per month housing allowance, could have been better used to improve education in the county's schools.
"His salary is way over the top," said Wanda Smith, a candidate for the District 2 seat. "If I was a current board member, I would have done more research before I made that decision."
District 2 incumbent, Lois Baines-Hunter, as well as District 3 candidate, Jessie Goree, and District 5 candidate, Diana Nichols, defended the hiring.
"I don't have a problem with his salary," Nichols said. "Let's be honest, who wants to come to Clayton County and work with this board? We had to pay that kind of money to get someone ..."
Another group pointed to a mandate from the southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which said the board needed to hire a permanent superintendent, not a temporary one.
"When SACS said hire a permanent superintendent, and they went out and hired a corrective one instead, I couldn't take it anymore ... I had to go out and qualify for this election," said Michael King, a District 4 candidate.
Despite the varying viewpoints on Thompson's hiring, all of the candidates who addressed the issue said the board and the community need to rally around the district's new leader as the system's accreditation crisis continues to linger.
"I hope he will turn out to be a good leader," said Ophelia Burroughs, a District 5 candidate. "Now that he's here, we have to start working with him."
In addition to Smith, Baines-Hunter, Goree, Nichols, King, and Burroughs, the candidates who attended the forum included: (District 2) Della Ashley, Andre Glover, Lindsey McDaniel; (District 3) Blondie Christian, Charles Davis, Tammie Hardy; (District 5) Robert Green, Phyllis Moore, Trena Morris; (District 6) John Askew, Mary Baker, Glenn Dowell, William Hill, Mabel Swaby; (District 7) David Ashe, C. Denese Sampson; and (District 8) Ed Rigdon.
Candidates Marty Holder, Sr., (District 3) and Deverick Williams (District 4), sent relatives to speak on their behalf.
Roughly 95 people attended the forum, which was held at New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riverdale. As many as half of the people who attended were school board candidates, their relatives and campaign officials. Simultaneously, another candidate forum was being held at Clayton State University for those running for legislative seats, county commission posts, sheriff, district attorney and solicitor general. Further splintering the community's attention Monday was a scheduled appearance by social activist Al Sharpton in Jonesboro.
Cyd Cox, the president of the Clayton County Council of PTAs, said she could not understand why people would show an interest in having candidate forums, only to have a small number show up to the events. She was not discouraged, though, and said she believes word of mouth can still help people learn what happened at the forum.
"It starts with a small group, but if you talk to your neighbors, it will go a long way," Cox told audience members as the forum concluded.
Charlton Bivins, chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Clayton County (C4), said the low turnout could be a mixture of two many community events taking place on the same night, and "forum fatigue" setting in. There have been four political-candidate forums in Clayton County in a one-week span. School board candidates spoke at three of those forums.
Bivins said it is time for the forums to evolve beyond candidates giving what are essentially sound bytes to the audience and the media. He suggested the possibility of mixers where the audience gets more opportunities to ask questions, or simply moving on to forums which focus on a specific school board district.
The Council of PTAs and C4 are beginning to plan localized district forums, which will take place this summer.
"Everybody feels compelled to hold a forum," Bivins said. "We're going to have introduce some new style to keep people entertained, so the won't say 'Ugh, it's another candidates forum.'"