By Curt Yeomans
After attending board meetings for nine years as a concerned parent, Mary Baker was overwhelmingly chosen by voters on Tuesday to join the board as the District 6 representative.
With 9 out of 10 precincts counted, Baker defeated Marcela Bodkin with 91 percent of the votes cast in Tuesday's special election. Only the provisional ballots remained to be counted as of 10 p.m.
Baker will serve the remaining three months of former board Chairman Eddie White's term. She will be sworn in on Sept. 22, with recent school board appointees Jessie Goree, Lindsey McDaniel and Trena Morris.
Including the three sitting board members, the board will now have seven members, two shy of a full board, but enough for a quorum to conduct business. The seats for Districts 1 and 9 will be filled during the Nov. 4, general election.
Once the new members are sworn in, the board can get to the most pressing issue facing it -- a loss of accreditation. The district has 12 months to retroactively regain its accreditation by complying with the eight remaining mandates from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
"I'm going to go in and see what they have next for us, " said Baker. "I'm hoping we can get a clear message from SACS as to what they want to see, so we can get to work on that."
Baker won the Democratic primary earlier this year for a separate, four-year term in the seat, and is facing no Republican opposition. However, Bodkin is mounting a legal battle to get on the Nov. 4 general election ballot as an independent candidate.
"I'm just really happy that the voters came back out to support me this time around," said Baker.
While Baker's showing at the polls was strong, overall voter turnout was anemic. The 6.4 percent turnout, or 1,175 out of 18,309 voters, was lower than Board of Elections Director Annie Bright predicted. At several precincts, voters came in sporadically.
"You've got only one post to vote on, and folks probably got complacent and just didn't want to take the time to vote," said Neil Lawson, poll manager at the M.D. Roberts Middle School voting precinct, which only had 262 voters show up by 6 p.m.
At Jackson Elementary School, only 70 voters cast ballots. Poll manager Jane Thomaston said some complained the election was not well advertised.
Thomaston joked that she wanted to get creative: "They [election officials] told me I wasn't allowed to run out in the street, so I could pull people over and ask them, 'Are you registered to vote? Then get in here and cast your ballot,'" said Thomaston.
Ironically, poll managers said many who voted were middle-aged and older, likely adults who no longer had children in the school system.
"It's mainly the people who are voting because of their property values," said Barbara Todd, poll manager at Arnold Elementary School. Many have expressed fears that the loss of accreditation will drive down property values. The precinct had 124 voters as of 5:30 p.m.
Other voters said they were motivated by the accreditation loss. "Our children graduated from Jonesboro High School, and now they won't come back here with their children because of this mess," said Pat Gardner, a Jonesboro resident who, along with her husband, Jerry, cast votes for Baker at Arnold Elementary School. "That affects our family because my husband and I would like to live closer to our children and grandchildren."
There were some parents of younger children at the polls, too. Ryan and Melissa Cuthrell, of Jonesboro, have two children at Jackson Elementary School. The Cuthrells said they wanted to make sure the right school board members were elected, so the district can regain its accreditation.
They were concerned about how people would view her children, particularly colleges, when they graduate from high school.
"We don't want the stigma of Clayton County losing its accreditation to result in people looking down on our children later on in life," said Melissa Cuthrell.