SC Board of Education candidates make their cases for election at Americus Kiwanis Club forum
AMERICUS – The Americus Kiwanis Club (AKC) once again hosted a political forum at its weekly meeting on Friday, October 23. This time, the candidates for the seven seats on the Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) got their opportunities to explain why they should be the ones to be elected or, in some cases, reelected to serve the seven districts throughout Sumter County.
The forum was held in the dining hall of the Marshall Student Center on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University.
There are 14 candidates running for the seven seats on the BOE. Eleven of them showed up at the forum, while the other three who couldn’t make had an opportunity to submit a written statement to be read at the forum by Herschel Smith, the forum moderator. The forum was also broadcasted over the Internet via Zoom.
Each candidate who attended in person had three minutes to make his or her case as to why they should be elected to serve on the BOE. Unlike previous political forums hosted by the AKC, there was no time for the candidates to answer questions from the floor due to time constraints. However, according to Smith, the AKC members suggested that the candidates address three main questions.
1). What are your plans for the old high school facility on Harold Avenue after the school moves?
2). What is your position on the high school name change?
3). What will be your number one priority during your tenure as a member of the BOE?
While the candidates were encouraged to answer these three questions in their speeches, they were not obligated to do so and could use their allotment of three minutes as they wished.
The BOE members representing District’s 2, 4 and 6 will serve four-year terms beginning on January 1, 2021 and the representatives of Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 will serve two-year terms immediately.
Alice Green is the incumbent candidate for District 1. Green is running against Abbis Bivins, who was not able to be at the forum in person and did not submit a written statement for Smith to read to the audience. Green was the first to address the AKC and others in attendance.
Green began her speech by stating that she has a history of educational excellence and a history of brining innovation into the classroom. “Sumter County Schools deserve the best and I will continue to serve for excellence, while always supporting public education,” said Green. Green went on to say that above everything else, her most important job will be to continue working faithfully for the children, while being a positive role model with an educational-driven mindset. She also added that all four of her children and all five of her grandchildren have matriculated through the Sumter County School System and, in her words, are doing quite well.
“I wanted the best education for my children, as well as all of the children of Sumter County then and now,” said Green. “I’m actively engaged in the community where I serve in many capacities.” Green went on to mention the various civic and charitable organizations that she is involved with, such as Relay for Life, the Phoebe Sumter Hospital Auxiliary and the Civil Service Civic and Social Club.
“The progress and direction the school district is headed is something I am pleased about,” said Green. “I have served humbly and honorably on the Board of Education for many years.” Green went on to say that she is proud of her role in the building of a new school and the College and Career Academy. She also stated that the current Americus-Sumter High School athletic facilities should still be used for the school’s athletic events, but that the BOE has not made a decision on the school building itself. However, Green did say that, in her opinion, the current school building should be used for community purposes.
Green went on to say that while she has served on the BOE, a steady mileage rate has been maintained and has not been increased in the last five years. She also stated that the BOE has provided the necessary resources for the children, eliminated school debt, created a surplus in the general fund and approved the renovation of all Sumter County schools and athletic facilities. Green added that the BOE’s decision to provide virtual learning for all of the students of Sumter County during the first semester of the 2020 School Year has probably saved a lot of lives during the COVID-19 Pandemic. “We provided personal devices for each student to use for virtual learning,” said Green. “We installed wireless wi-fi for 39 busses that are positioned in Internet-access deficiency areas so that student learning may continue.”
Green went on to say that as a school board member, she believes that she must be receptive and responsive to all stakeholders, while keeping an open mind and always being opened for dialogue. “I believe it’s imperative to take input from all individuals and consider all factors before making a decision,” said Green. “However, all of the decisions I’ve made will have the children in mind,” she continued.
She went on to say that her effort as a board member, if reelected, will center around serving all of the children in the community by staying up to date with current policies and procedures and by adopting policies that support and align with the vision and goals of the school system so that when students graduate, they will be ready for the rigors of college and career.
“With my passion, vision and experience in turning ideas into reality, I’m ready to continue representing you as your District 1 School Board member,” said Green. “I will continue to be a voice for every student, to have quality, consistent and equitable education that prepares them for a successful and productive future.”
Green finished her remarks by saying that over the past few years, she has proven herself to be a well informed, cooperative, respectful, responsive and hard-working member of the school board. “For dedication, passionate and experienced community leadership, I ask that you vote Alice Green 2020 to ensure that school continues to move in the right direction,” concluded Green.
The candidates for District 2 of the BOE are the incumbent Meda Krenson and her challenger, Patricia Harris. It was Krenson’s turn to speak first. Krenson, who is a member of the AKC, began her remarks by saying that she has been a member of the BOE for the past 10 years and that she originally ran because she had children in the system and she felt that a public school parent needed to be on the BOE.
“I have enjoyed my service and have been proud of our accomplishments, which you will hear from all the incumbents today,” said Krenson. “I knew I was a proven leader and I’ve been on many boards, so I feel confident in what I can contribute.” Krenson left two pieces of yellow paper on each table at the forum. One was entitled “Attributes of an effective school board member”, while the other one had her goals listed on one side and her history as a school board member on the other.
Krenson stated that her number one goal as a school board member is putting students first. “I think if I had to tell you the quote that I hear the most in our meetings is ‘Well, we’re doing it for the kids’. That shows the general attitude of our board. Children come first,” said Krenson. “I also think that improving communications at all levels is important and having two-way rapport with the public.”
However, Krenson stated that the main thing she wanted to discuss in her speech was the fact that she has been an architect since 1976 and has owned her own architectural business for the past 40 years. She also stated that she used her experience to help design a high school building in Atlanta. She mentioned all of this to say that there aren’t many school boards in the state that have a professionally registered architect on their boards that can volunteer and lend their expertise in decisions that are made about maintenance and design of both new and existing facilities.
“We started talking about the new high school and I was able to be involved from the beginning,” said Krenson. “With architect selection, construction management company selection and the preliminary design, I was friends with the architect that we selected and he welcomed me sitting in on the meetings with the faculty to find out what each department head needed in his or her department.”
Krenson went on to say that she was able to provide advice and insight to the school faculty so that they could more intelligently know what was being offered and whether or not they would have enough space for it so that their needs would be satisfied.
Krenson continued by saying that she was able to contribute when the BOE was taking bids and helped to cut costs and eliminate things that were not needed, as well as assist on making decisions on what the BOE and the school system really needed. “I’ve been involved in visiting the construction site and helping the rest of the board members select finishes and things,” said Krenson. “I just think it’s important to be able to continue being involved in the construction of that facility (the new high school building), which is a $50 million-dollar investment for our community. Along with the College and Career Academy, it’s going to be a real asset and I want to see it finished all the way through successfully, so I would appreciate your vote on November 3,” she continued.
Now, it was Patricia Harris’s turn to make her case as to why she should unseat Krenson and be elected to serve on the BOE for District 2. Harris started off her speech by directly answering the three questions that the AKC members wanted answers to. As to what her number one priority would be as a school board member, Harris stated that she would strive to do what is best for the students of Americus and all of Sumter County, which, in her words, included imparting the best education, hiring the best administrators, giving the students the best education, making the classroom conditions the best they can be, having the best transportation, the best meal plans, the best extracurricular activities and the best structure for special needs students. “There is so much that I can talk about doing, but actions speak louder than words,” said Harris. “I am so ready to show you action by working diligently for District 2 and all of the students in the Americus-Sumter County area.”
Harris went on to say that her plans for the high school facility on Harold Avenue were, at first, to sell it, but after speaking to concerned citizens who have history and memories of the school, Harris said that she came to the conclusion that her thoughts on what should be done with the property have changed. She continued by stating that the property can be used as a training facility for all sports. “Since some of the promised plans for the new school are no longer being fulfilled, some of it (the Harold Avenue property) can be used for our own alternative school, or perhaps a night school that would help our children that are falling along the wayside,” said Harris.
As far as her position on the name change of the new high school, Harris simply expressed that position by reciting an old saying: “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”
She went on to say that, in her opinion, there is nothing wrong with the current name and that there is no need to talk about a new one. “Why wasn’t the student and the citizen involved in the decision making of the new name,” said Harris. “We were involved in the decision to build the new school because our tax dollars are going to have to help fund the new school, so we all should be involved in the name change since it has been placed on the table.”
Harris continued by saying that the controversy over the name of the high school is causing division in the community, while at the same time, the students have brought unity to the community with their accomplishments while under the name “Americus-Sumter High.” Harris added that as a business owner for over 27 years in the city of Americus, she sees the changing of the name as a slap in the face.
“As I walk the streets and campaign, I have learned that I’m not the only business owner that feels this way,” said Harris. “We donate. We volunteer and we love the Americus-Sumter High. I honestly do not believe that the generosity and support that has been given by the business owners in this city will continue if Americus is not included in the name of the new high school,” Harris continued.
In her closing remarks, Harris stated that she is running for District 2 of the BOE because she wants to edify all of the students and increase productivity in the community of Americus and Sumter County.
Incumbent Jim Reid and his challenger, Edward Jackson, are both running for the District 3 Seat on the BOE. District 3 primarily covers the western end of the county, including the city of Plains. Jackson was not able to be at the forum in person because of a job commitment, but submitted a written statement that Smith read to the audience gathered at the forum. The following is Jackson’s written statement.
“Greetings! The time is now! I have a personal and vested interest in our school system,” wrote Jackson. “It is the school system that educated my parents, that educated me and that will educate my children in the near future.
The school system is the foundation of our community and the reason people choose to live in Sumter County. I understand the importance of having quality leaders in our elected positions and I am committed to ensuring that Sumter County Schools continues to provide the excellent level of education our students deserve.
Serving in public office is not about an agenda. It is about being a support for the stakeholders in the organization, which include our educators, students and families. Thanks for the opportunity. Blessings to you all.”
Once Smith was finished reading Jackson’s statement, the incumbent candidate Jim Reid stepped to the podium to make his case as to why he should be reelected to be the representative for District 3 of the BOE.
Reid began his remarks by stating that his great great grandfather, W.A. Wilson, served on the very first Sumter County School Board that was ever formed. “Previously, I represented District 3, which, up until the redistricting, was the largest land mass,” said Reid. “I currently had the pleasure to serve for five years. When this current board took over, what we found is the general fund had less than $1.8 million in it and there was no budgeting process. “ Reid went on to say that the previous board spent a lot of money and “robbed Peter to pay Paul” in order to make budget.
“The lunchroom, when we took over, had $180,000.00 in it and was not even going to make it to June before it was insolvent,” said Reid. “We’ve implemented financial controls. The general fund grew to over $14 million. With the COVID and the virus, we had to dispense some of that. Currently, the general fund is over $10 million,” continued Reid.
He went on to say that the lunchroom program has been increased up to $1.4 million, but that lunchroom workers and all of the bus drivers are still being paid good wages. “We’ve implemented budget procedures. We zero-based budgeted,” said Reid. “We’ve had a balanced budget for the last three years. We’ve not had to raise taxes. Not one time have we had to dip into the reserve fund.”
Reid went on to say that unlike previous school boards, the school board that he serves on has done a much better job of managing money because of certain financial procedures that the BOE put in place. He also stated that all of the schools in Sumter County are now off of the government’s Priority List. “We have striven for the last five years to hire effective teachers, to hire effective administrators,” said Reid. “That also means that when you do that there are people you have that are ineffective teachers and ineffective leaders or administrators and they have to be removed. Sometimes those decisions are painful, but that comes with the territory of being a leader,” Reid continued.
As far as the issue of the name of the new high school is concerned, Reid first began by stating that the BOE received a $3.1 million-dollar grant to build the College and Career Academy and that the foundation that made that possible was the One Sumter Foundation. “That foundation was part of bringing the county together and to unite,” said Reid. “Most of you are aware that there is always an animosity in the county towards the city and that was part of that foundation’s responsibility. Their goal was to unify this county.” Reid went on to say that in all of the other county schools, such as the primary, elementary and middle schools, the name “Sumter County” has been maintained as the name of those schools. He added that back in 1994, Americus High School technically ceased to exist when the City School System’s board became insolvent and had to surrender its charter to the county. “The County Board of Education had to assume the education of all students,” said Reid. He added that the name “Sumter County” unifies everyone in the county regardless of his or her zip code in the county. “You’re a member or resident of Sumter County,” said Reid. “That is the lowest common denominator. That is the unifying factor. Also, we maintain our conformity and our uniformity as we name our schools.”
Reid went on to say that a person inside the city limits of Americus does not pay any more or any less taxes than a taxpayer that lives outside of the city limits in another part of the county. “We have had Union, Plains High School, A.S. Staley, Sumter County Comprehensive High School. All of those schools have been closed or merged,” said Reid. “The group that was pushing to include Americus in the high school, they were only worried about Americus High School. They were not concerned about any of the other schools that have closed and have lost their memories,” continued Reid.
Reid went on to say that as far as participation, it was advertised in the legal organ and it was on the radio station prior to the meeting. “The night in December when we made the decision, not one person appeared before the board,” said Reid.
Once Reid was finished, it was time for the candidates for the District 4 Seat to make their cases. District 4 encompasses the eastern part of the county and includes the communities of De Soto, Cobb and Leslie. There are three candidates for District 4: the incumbent Rick Barnes, who serves as the Vice Chairman of the BOE, Brooks Robinson and Curtis Porter. Barnes was first to the podium and began his opening remarks by stating that he has been dually elected twice and that he is serving his second term. He also stated what the fundamental role of a BOE member is supposed to be, this according to a code called “Fundamentals, Roles of Local Boards of Education and Local Superintendents”. Barnes began reading this statement and it reads as follows:
“The fundamental role of a local Board of Education shall be to establish policy for the local school system with the focus on student achievement, but it shall also be the duty of the local board to hold the local school superintendent accountable in the performance of his or her duties to carry those out.”
Barnes went on to explain that part of the duties of the local BOE includes dealing with budgets. “As a member of the board, you promise to come to the meetings and be prepared to talk about budgets,” said Barnes. “I feel like this board has done that. I feel like I’ve done that every time we’ve had a meeting.”
Barnes continued by stating that he has always arrived at the BOE meetings prepared and ready to discuss the issues with other BOE members. He added that the BOE is accountable, as far as the education of the county’s children is concerned, and that no kids will be promoted to the next grade level without the proper grades.
“Also, from an accountability standpoint, we’re talking about our employees,” said Barnes. “We are one of the largest if not the largest employer in the county. As a board member, we have to make sure that our policies take care of our employees, safety first.”
Barnes continued his speech by stating that it’s the responsibility of the BOE to come up with policies that help create an environment in which the county’s teachers can be successful and to make sure that the superintendent carries out those policies. “One of those policies that we really stressed and have come a long way on is our evaluations of our administrators and our teachers,” said Barnes. “Our superintendent is held accountable to make sure those evaluations are done on time and in a correct manner. As a board member, we don’t see those. We’re not participating. We’re not allowed to participate in them. We only get the scores and we evaluate our superintendent on those scores. We’re holding accountability where accountability can be held,” continued Barnes.
Barnes went on to say that he is certainly proud of the BOE and his fellow board members and was also proud to have had the opportunity to participate in the decision of the county when the ESPLOST was voted on to build the new high school.
“We have done a tremendous job as a board coming together, working as one, not always agreeing,” said Barnes. “But then, making sure that if we disagreed, we did it collectively and civil. Barnes went on to say that the citizens of Sumter County can hold the BOE accountable for the new high school building and can be very proud of the BOE’s work. Barnes concluded his speech by saying that those who live in the eastern side of the county live in District 4 and that he, Rick Barnes, is running again for the District 4 Seat.
Neither Robinson nor Porter was able to attend the forum in person and neither one of them submitted a written statement explaining why they should the candidate to be elected for District 4.
Up next were the candidates for District 5: This district includes the northwest part of Sumter County. Edith Ann Green is the incumbent board member and is running against Carolyn Hamilton. Green was asked to come to the podium first to make her case to be reelected.
Green began her speech by stating that her goal in life is to serve her community in a constructive manner. “It is the vision and mission of Sumter County Schools to provide an equitable education for all students and to graduate all students college and career-ready,” said Green. “To that end, as a member of the Board of Education, I am committed to focus on student success.”
Green went on to say that in order for all students of Sumter County to have an equitable education, barriers that enable poor performance must be removed. Green also stated that she is dedicated to serving District 5 in the implementation of policies, curriculum and technology. She then stated that organizations such as the Kiwanis Club are helping to remove those barriers by promoting a school reading program for kids, as well as other activities that benefit the schools and the community.
Green also talked about how the pandemic has impacted the school system and how the school system has had to cope with it, while at the same time, still provide a way for students to continue learning. “This pandemic is our new norm to all of us,” said Green. “In so many ways, it has forced us to consider each other. Social distancing, wearing masks, coming to the aid of others. Superintendent Choates and Sumter Schools have embraced the opportunity to work with entities throughout the community,” continued Green.
She went on to say that all of the citizens of Sumter County serving together can make the community great and that there are so many things happening in the schools of Sumter County. In closing, Green said that she is ready, eager and excited to serve as the representative for District 5 of the BOE. “I will never give up on Sumter County Schools. Our children are our future,” said Green. “It is my hope that you will be enlightened on the accomplishments of Superintendent Choates and the Board of Education.”
After Green finished her speech, it was time for her challenger, Carolyn Hamilton, to step to the podium to make her case for the District 5 Seat. Hamilton began her speech by stating that she is a life-long citizen of Sumter County who was not only educated in the school system, but was an administrator in the school system as well. She stated that during her 40 years as an educator, she served as Principal of Sumter Middle School and Stewart County Middle, was the Assistant Principal of Americus-Sumter High, the Director of Crossroads Alternative and currently serves as a school improvement specialist.
“Why do I want to serve on the school board? Well, I’m glad you asked that question,” said Hamilton. “I have never been a person who coached from the stands. I believe if you really want to make a difference, I think you’ve got to join the team. You’ve got to get in the game and you’ve got to become a part of the decision-making process instead of part of the complaining process,” continued Hamilton.
She went on to say that she has witnessed the schools in Sumter County becoming “revolving doors”, with teachers, students and leaders coming and going continuously. “As the schools go, so does the community,” said Hamilton. “People are leaving our community and this is of our coming. As one business misstated, and I quote: ‘Anyone who is considering opening a business in a community will certainly be concerned about the quality of the public education there’. If our children are going to have any chance of being able to compete successfully in a global society, then we need stable leadership with our principals and our teachers,” continued Hamilton.
She went on to say that if she is elected, she will work to make sure that the BOE is recruiting and retaining the best leaders and the best teachers. Hamilton also added that the county has lost far too many good teachers, leaders and students to other school districts. “A strong, stable school system is able to retain and attract the best leaders and teachers and provides the best tools to educate the children,” said Hamilton. “I feel that this instability is the major reason why our schools have become academically stagnant.”
Hamilton went on to make her case for the District 5 Seat by stating that she has the experience and the knowledge to develop policies that will help every student achieve and possess the 21st Century skills that they will need to be successful in life.
“I will work tirelessly to make sure that our schools are not pipelines into prisons, but highways to higher education and life-long successful careers,” said Hamilton. “They say that a school district is only as good as its board members. Being a school board member will give me the opportunity to continue working and advocating for the education of all of our children in the school district, as I have done for so many years.”
Hamilton continued her speech by saying that if someone is looking for a board member that is wise, capable, willing to work with others, intelligent, caring, one who is concerned about the education of children, one who will put the children first and one with no hidden agenda, then they should look no further than to her.
“To the current board members, I say thank you for your years of service, but I’m ready to take it from here,” said Hamilton. “It’s time for a change. I ask you for your support. I’m Carolyn Hamilton and I approve this message.”
The one candidate running for District 6, Vincent Kearse, was not at the forum. Therefore, the focus of the forum shifted to the candidates for District 7, which encompasses the south side of Americus. The incumbent board member, Sylvia Roland, is running against Dwight Harris for that district seat.
Roland was asked to come to the podium first to make her case. She began her speech by mentioning that she has served the last six years as an at-large member of the BOE and is very proud to be a board member. She also stated that she grew up and went to school in Arkansas and raised her children in the Arkansas Public School System. “I taught in public schools in Arkansas for 12 years, in Florida for six years and then I was proud to spend my last year at Americus-Sumter High School,” said Roland. “I never thought as a teacher I would see myself being a board member. However, after I retired from teaching, I decided I still had something to give to education.”
Roland went on to say that she is proud of the accomplishments that the BOE has made thus far in her six years as a board member and that she is particularly proud of the fact that the citizens voted in favor of the ESPLOST, which led to the building of the new high school. “We are thrilled to be well on our way to getting that new high school built,” said Roland. “We have that $3.1 million-dollar grant that we were rewarded for the College and Career Academy and we’re thrilled beyond measure that we not only have that, but it’s being built across the street from South Georgia Tech, where we can make lots of partnerships and pathways with them as well.”
Roland went on to tell the Kiwanians and others in the audience that she is happy that the BOE was able to lower their mileage rates and that they can thank a board member for the reduction of their taxes. She also stated that she is proud to say that during the last four years, she has been extremely pleased with the leadership of Sumter County School Superintendent Dr. Torrance Choates.
“Once we hired him, we got behind him. We trusted him to lead our school system,” said Roland. “He comes to us with recommendations, which we discuss and we either approve or reject.” Roland went on to say that not every vote that the BOE makes is unanimous, but once the vote is made, all seven of the board members get behind whatever the result ends up being.
Roland closed by saying that she looks forward to continuing to represent the students and parents in the school system and that she hopes to be reelected to District 7 of the BOE.
With that, it was time for Roland’s challenger, Dwight Harris, to take the podium and to make his case why he should be the one to unseat Roland and to serve as the District 7 Representative.
In his opening remarks, Harris stated that he is running for the District 7 Seat not as a guided missile, nor as a misguided man, but is running on his own free will and accord. “I have no reason to deceive you with any strong delusion. I have no concealed agenda. My conscience is my guide,” said Harris. “I was born, raised and educated right here in Sumter County so I stand on the shoulders of so many great men.” Harris went on to mention the great coaches that have coached and, in some cases, are still coaching in the rec department and in the high schools of the county, such as Alton Shell, Clive McGrady, Doug Parrish, Carl Willis, Richard Fussell and others. “These men taught me the value of hard work,” said Harris. “Put your foot down! Your word is your bond! You don’t have to be compromised in order to be recognized! Just do the right thing! For those of you that don’t know who I am, this is who I am.”
Harris went on to say that to run is an incentive and a stimulus and that his interest is pure and vested. “I want nothing more nor less than to give back to my community,” said Harris. “I will help make sure that all students are treated the same, all students are treated right, not fair, because what is fair to one might not be legitimately fair to another. There is only one way to do any right thing and the same applies to us all,” continued Harris.
He went on to say that if he is elected, he will make sure that the school system will continue to rely and depend upon learning rather than discipline and encouragement rather than punishment. He added that if elected, he will help to ensure accountability and to boost the morale of the faculty, staff, students and parents. “My goal is for Sumter County Schools to be the model for others to emulate when developing a plan for developing their communities when it comes to education,” said Harris. “Plains High School produced a man that was a President, the leader of the free world. Sumter County, we can do it again and I want to be a part of that movement, not for recognition, but because that’s who I am,” Harris continued.
Harris went on to say that he was born and raised in Sumter County and that his wife, Victoria, was a teacher at Staley Middle School, an assistant principal at Sumter County High School and was a the first ever principal at the Ninth Grade Academy.
He also mentioned that Edith Ann Green, who is running as the incumbent for District 5, was his schoolteacher in high school. “She taught me Accounting,” said Harris. “Well, the students are our clients and we’re the suppliers and one day, we must all give an account as to how we treat or mistreat those we come in contact with.” In closing, Harris quoted a verse of scripture from Matthew 25:40: “If you do it unto the least of these my brother, you do it also unto me.”
With that, the forum was over. Smith thanked all of the candidates for coming and making their cases and for their service in the community. “Winners and losers, you’re all winners to me,” said Smith. He added that Dr. Choates wanted to remind everyone that there is a virtual tour of the new high school building on the Sumter County BOE’s Facebook page.
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