By Curt Yeomans
Eight of 10 candidates vying for the vacant District 1 Clayton County Board of Education seat believe regaining public trust through transparency is one of the biggest obstacles -- outside of accreditation -- facing them, if elected.
About 50 residents attended the forum on Thursday at the Lovejoy Community Center as the candidates outlined their views. It was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Georgia and the Psi Alpha Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
The District 1 seat became vacant on Aug. 28, when Gov. Sonny Perdue removed Michelle Strong from office, along with three other school board members. The special election will take place on Nov. 4, to coincide with the general election.
Speaker after speaker emphasized the need for board members to be responsive to the community, and not themselves. "It's not the board's school system, it's our school system," said candidate Whayne Clarke. He has worked with groups, such as the Clayton County Wide Homeowners Association. He said the board should seek public input on all issues.
"I haven't been able to determine what method the board uses to communicate with the public. Communications at the board level is broken," said Pamela Adamson, who is a former Clayton County teacher and administrator. She has served on several accreditation-review teams for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Adamson said she is surprised the agency did not cite the communications issue as one of the standards for accreditation. She wants a standardized method of communications between board members and the public implemented.
Candidates Clarke and Adamson were joined by Cleopatra Ballantyne; William Callier; Dominick Crea; Wendy Labat; Maggie Martinez, and Melody Totten at the forum. Candidates, Jean Brown and Paulette Stewart, were absent because of scheduling conflicts, said Rebekah Holland, a member of the Lovejoy City Council and the League of Women Voters of Georgia.
"Regaining the public's trust is very important," said Totten. "We don't trust the board at all right now."
Totten, an accountant, said the communications gap between the board and the community has hurt the level of public trust in the school system's governing body. If elected, she promised to make herself available at all times and in any location, from the grocery store to football games.
Crea, an attorney, said an ongoing dialogue between the board members and members of the community could help rebuild the public's trust in the board. He also said board members should be open to seeking advice from the community, and letting that guidance shape their decisions.
Callier, a Cobb County firefighter whose wife is a Clayton County teacher, said one problem with communications is the district's web site. "As far as the board's web site is concerned, you have to click on a link, and then follow this link, and that link, to get the information you want," Callier said. "The school system's web site is not very user friendly ... Our parents should be able to get on the school system's web site and get the information they are seeking [with ease]."
The community would be empowered if it were kept abreast of what is going on with the board and the school system at all times, said Ballantyne. "Knowledge is power," she added. "The more informed we are, the more likely we will be able to see what's coming."
However, Labat, a member of the Georgia Parent-Teacher Association's (PTA) board of directors, said there are limits to what the board members can do in terms of communicating with the public. As an example, she said board members cannot take care of education problems for a constituent.
"If elected, I would be accessible, but you have to understand there are certain things I -- as a board member -- cannot address," Labat said.
Other issues the candidates said need to be looked at are Superintendent John Thompson's contract, and restoring pride in the school system. Many of the candidates said the school system is already doing well, and the board needs to make sure the district is able to hire and retain highly qualified teachers.
"We need to look at teachers' salaries," said Martinez, a teacher in Cobb County. "If we want to attract highly qualified teachers, we really need to be willing to pay the price."
Initially, the District 1 special election drew a dozen contenders, but two candidates have since withdrawn from the race.
The League of Women Voters of Georgia and the Psi Alpha Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority will host a candidates forum for the school board's District 9 special election on Oct. 16, from 6:30 p.m., to 8 p.m., at the Carl Rhodenizer Recreation Center, 1499 Rex Road, Rex.