A man in the arena: Jim Reid

Published 9:34 am Tuesday, December 28, 2021

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Tenacious: not readily relinquishing a position, principle, or course of action; determined. As an elected member of the Sumter County Board of Education (BOE), Jim Reid promised to be the face and voice of his constituents. He has been given an honor and it is expected he will follow through with his duties, based upon his and his neighbor’s principles. Being elected, he is never promised everybody will like him, nor is it Jim’s goal. Watch any BOE meeting and it is likely when Jim opens his mouth you will hear conviction. Sometimes those convictions will garner him support, other times it will bring criticism. Jim doesn’t work for either, he sees his goal as simply to be a “good steward.” He will do what he feels is best to move his district, as well as Sumter County as a whole, towards a “greater good.” Despite an opinion on how Jim governs, most can agree Jim is tenacious.

Jim readily admits there was a day when he could be found simply adding his voice to those of the critics yet offering no aid to building a solution. He also admits he has realized the importance of President Theodore Roosevelt’s words from his Man in the Arena speech. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…..” Jim has made a commitment to be in the arena. Anyone familiar with Jim knows he does not easily relinquish a task. Yet, on December 10th he resigned his position as a BOE member. He had to do so in order to qualify for the vacant position left by his brother, William Reid, on the Sumter County Board of Commissioners.

On December 14, 2021, the Americus Times Recorder sat down with Jim at his invitation to hear his words regarding his tenure on the BOE. Indigenous to Jim Reid, he brought his opinions to the conversation. Jim’s great-great grandfather was of member of the first school board. Jim has served since 2015 and came on the board during a rather tumultuous time. Sumter County Schools (SCS) were on probation with the accrediting body of school systems. Much was on the line, as without accreditation, a diploma from SCS would be worthless. Jim is also the BOE’s finance chairman. When he came on the board there were serious financial concerns. In layman’s terms, the SCS was borrowing money to make payroll. The SCS was utilizing local and state funds to pay for items which could be paid for with federal funding. The school’s nutrition services were looking at the real threat of being bankrupt before the school year would be completed. When Jim came on the board, he and other employees of the SCS very deliberately went about repairing those wounds. Today SCS enjoys a balanced budget, and the nutrition program is well funded and healthy. Under Jim’s leadership, the mill rate has remained steady. In addition, Jim took action to save millions of dollars to ensure the costs of the new high school would be covered when the final bill came due. As fellow BOE member, Sylvia Roland states, “I’ll tell you this–if you’re a tax paying citizen of Sumter County, you want Jim on the BOE.” Winning almost 55% of the District Three vote in 2019, the residents agreed with Roland.

If you heard Jim speak during election season of 2019, he would often address the name of the new high school. Although the name of the school was already literally carved in stone, the debate continued, and many citizens held out hope the school would bear Americus’ name. Jim, having voted to name the school Sumter County High School, would readily defend his vote. He would speak of the One Sumter Foundation and how a community effort made by a very diverse group of people came together to make the Ignite College and Career Academy happen. He would remark on the diversity of people involved, the amount of unity displayed and in honoring the people who decided to get behind One Sumter, he wanted to honor the concept of a one Sumter by making the name inclusive to all municipalities within our county. He remained adamant, despite the displeasure of many, in going forward with naming the school after the county. Upon sitting down with Jim, he still remains adamant about the concept of a one Sumter, amazed at the investments made by citizens on behalf of the Ignite College and Career Academy (CCA), and he feels a strong sense of duty to speak for the people who took action. He does not want their voice to be muted and he takes seriously his responsibility to be worthy of their investment. He feels the CCA is under threat by specific board members and fellow residents need to know and be warned against the potential loss we will suffer if the board members are successful in their efforts.

Jim is plain spoken in his words. “With four new members coming on obviously, I knew there would be change. But it’s not been a pleasant year. There is a lot of stress. I felt like instead of going to a meeting, I was going to a fight. I’m fighting to defend the past; I am fighting to defend the future. Everything came hard. They made Dr. Torrance Choates, especially Carolyn Hamilton, they made his life miserable. As the year progressed, I started to see things we were working for gradually slip away. I noticed in January she (Hamilton) had something against the college and career academy. But here’s the thing, the college and career academy represents 225,000 man hours. All color of skins, sexes, ages, walks of life—they were going to 7 (am) and late at night meetings. I’ve never been a part of something that united the community as much (as making the CCA happen).”

The CCA was the fruit of many people, of all varieties and talents, coming together to make Sumter County a better place to live. Under the umbrella of the One Sumter Foundation, the CCA was a dream which came about over many, many months and required the community to give much of themselves, as a grant was submitted to earn over 3 million dollars in funding. A CCA is a remarkable achievement for a community and there are only 49 CCAs in the State of Georgia. Ignite College and Career Academy is only 1 of 9 to start its inaugural year in 2020. The competition to secure the funding is intense and required partnerships be strong and healthy between SCS, higher education institutions, businesses, community members and the student population. The CCA fit into One Sumter’s vision as they wanted to see strategic areas in Sumter County flourish. Economic and workforce development is one of the areas. The CCA, by giving our students work-based learning opportunities, would drastically change our work force readiness by giving the student the opportunity to explore their career options, earn college credits and make them ready for real-life work challenges. As Jim puts it, in regard to earning a diploma from the CCA, he says “what it means is more than a piece of paper to an employee, a piece of paper doesn’t mean anything. They get a piece of paper and go out into the world, and they encounter people like me, and they don’t know how to handle people like me. (The CCA will) take them at a young age and teach them interpersonal skills, promptness and quality of work. You get a degree from the CCA and it’s almost a guarantee of the product. They (CCA graduates) will work.”  In increasing our readiness, our economic development professionals would be able to offer potential industry a worker who was ready to join the business world. Potential industry takes many things into account when deciding where to make their home. The health of the school system as well as a ready workforce are only two of those investigated areas. A CCA would address both of those needs and put Sumter County in a much more positive place to entice potential industry to the area. The CCA is both a great hope, a great selling tool and a vital partner to current and future growth. Its impact is not limited to today, nor is it limited to a certain population. As One Sumter states, with a CCA in our community, “everybody wins.”

Many citizens donate not only their time and efforts, but they also make a significant fiscal contribution to the foundation along with a pledge to continue their giving into the future. One Sumter was formed after many of our citizens saw what our future would look like if we didn’t step in and make some improvements. Sumter County’s outlook was not a good one and we were suffering many wounds which a grassroots effort would ultimately address as One Sumter. Simply put, One Sumter is for those who want a better Sumter County. The CCA was a call to those who would not stand down while Sumter County digressed. The CCA is a call many take very seriously, as it offers a desperately needed hope for our future.

Jim is passionate about protecting the investment made to get us a CCA. As he states, “this thing is slipping away and she’s (Carolyn Hamilton) trying to give it a black eye. She’s made Dr. Gilman’s tenure very difficult; she’s attacked him and tried to put roadblocks for him and everything he’s done.” Dr. Don Gilman is the CCA’s CEO. Dr. Gilman answers to a CCA board, made up a diverse group of people, and the superintendent of SCS. He was hired by the CCA board and Dr. Torrance Choates, the immediate past superintendent of SCS. Because the CCA is part of the SCS, it also falls under the BOE. However, Jim states his understanding of the BOE’s role for the CCA would simply be one of a fiscal “conduit.” “I don’t think he (Gilman) should have to come before us. When we voted on it (to pursue a CCA), that’s not what I voted for. I saw nothing which indicated we would or should be involved in the day-to-day activity. That was reserved for the CCA board. In my opinion, I don’t think we (BOE) should be.” As this year has progressed, Dr. Gilman has kept the BOE abreast of the developments, however he has been met with resistance. As Jim states, “there’s been things that came back before us, that we had to vote on, that let her (Hamilton) get her hand in the pot, and I don’t really think it’s right. I think people need to know and she needs to be called out on it.”

SCS has been broadcasting the BOE meetings on Facebook secondary to COVID-19 and can be viewed on the Sumter County Schools page. Recently, there have been two meetings Dr. Gilman addressed the board. The first was to simply be given permission to offer a private donor the opportunity to name a lab in the CCA. An additional vote to approve naming the lab would be required after the donor had committed to give. The minimum requirement for consideration would be $100,000. Gilman let the BOE know he was courting a donor who was interested in this option, but he was unable to offer naming privileges until the BOE made naming a lab a viable possibility. Gilman gave the example that the company could have naming rights for 5 years. Then they would be given the opportunity to make another donation to keep the name, or another donor could step up and earn the naming privileges. This practice makes it possible for the CCA to have a continued and sustained donation throughout the years. This practice is commonplace for both CCAs and higher educational institutions alike. As Gilman states, he sees part of his charge to make sure our students get “equal footing” with other CCAs. If Gilman is successful in his efforts our students will be able to attend such events as an engine building national championship in another state. The fees, transportation, food and lodging associated with the competitions are high and without support, our students would likely not be able to fund such educational pursuits, nor would they ever be able to claim participation in such on a resume. Naming a lab after a business would bring funding which would allow for such. The funding would be kept in a transparent banking account and could be tracked by the BOE at any time. As seen during the October 2021 meeting, this brought forth a very complicated response, primarily from Carolyn Hamilton and Abbis Bivins. The BOE spent the better part of an hour discussing the issue. Hamilton first wanted to know if Gilman intended to damage the walls to display a sign with the lab name. Then it moved into chasing down hypothetical situations regarding the band room brought up by Hamilton. At one point Chairman Rick Barnes had to address Abbis Bivins’ question regarding if the CCA was a private or public entity. Ultimately, after explaining the request many times and Vincent Kearse having to break the tension with a joke, Chairman Rick Barnes called for a vote and the CCA was given permission to make naming privileges possible. The vote passed with Roland, Kearse and Barnes voting in favor. Bivins opposed it and Hamilton abstained. Reid was unable to attend due to medical reasons. While this vote garnered conversation for close to an hour, the academic assessments which indicate a significant amount of our students are not on grade level was met with Hamilton stating such was the trend for the state and the meeting moved on within 30 seconds and no further conversation. Jim would return to this at the December meeting and ask, point blank, how our graduates could not read or write on grade level, however over 90% were being given a diploma. No concrete answer was given. As Jim stated, with 60% and better of our students not being on grade level, if the SCS was a manufacturer, 60% of the time the product would not be up to standards. Again, little discussion was given this, with Hamilton reporting the students don’t take the diagnostic testing seriously.

The second time Gilman presented to the board he gave the pass/fail rate of CCA students for the end of the semester. The CCA has 918 students enrolled, 697 of those students are passing the courses, 221 did not pass a class at last measurement. These are class grades which could change with another assignment completed. They were not assessments as were presented in the October 2021 work meeting. However, unlike the diagnostic testing which indicated significant academic problems, yet only garnered a comment on the statewide trend, or were dismissed under the comment of students not taking them seriously, Gilman was told these grades were a “problem” by Hamilton. She continued to question Gilman on the number of students dually enrolled and the fact some career study pathways had less than 10 students enrolled. Gilman explained a diversity of pathways was needed as there were a diversity of career options in Sumter County. He was not willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of the student to increase census numbers.

Jim questions Hamilton’s motivation regarding the CCA. He describes an incident stemming from hiring a work-based learning coordinator. “We are starting this (CCA) up and we need to put our best foot forward.” Jim describes an administrative assistant position which might be displaced from the ninth-grade academy. Jim states Hamilton fought for her to be hired as the coordinator. “He (Gilman) was trying to have somebody that had experience. We didn’t need to take the opportunity for them to fall on their face. She did her best to force him into hiring her.”

Jim is firm in believing the CCA has the power to change the landscape of Sumter County. He sees his role as steward not only over our dollars and our students, but he feels a need to protect the investment our community put into the CCA. His need to protect the CCA is not in vain. On December 20, 2021, The Americus Times Recorder received news from Jim regarding the potential donor which had inquired on naming privileges for a CCA lab. He states, “I was able to verify the following with regards to naming the labs at Ignite: The amount of the donation was $100,000.00. The donor backed away after the October board meeting because of Mrs. Hamilton’s comments and animosity towards Ignite.” Jim went on to question the impact her behavior during the board meeting might have on other donors. With the potential to name 12 labs, at a minimum of $100,000, per lab, the CCA could potentially accrue over $1.2 million for Ignite’s mission.

Although the CCA seems to be of most importance to Jim, there are other costs as well. According to Jim, Dr. Torrance Choates suffered when the new board was seated. He feels Choates did what he had to in order to secure his health, by reporting he would not be seeking an additional term. He also has concerns over Hamilton breaking with norms and protocol, as evidenced by making salary adjustments in an open finance committee meeting. Reid questions how Hamilton was aware of issues in the school before Choates was and indicates the issues hadn’t had an “opportunity to go up the chain of command” before Hamilton was confronting Choates on them. He also considers it a red flag when a voting member looks to another representative to know how to vote. Voting for the sake of appearing in solidarity with another board member is a red flag for Reid. “It gives the other board member two votes, and it disenfranchises the people the board member is representing. It’s as if that (citizen) does not have a voice.” Reid warns of such because he feels the new board members are looking to Hamilton to set their vote. In doing so, their constituents are being sacrificed. It also makes the superintendent inconsequential as his ability to get any of his recommendations passed becomes a political toy.

Jim is not a man to stand silent. Neither is he the man to complain without a willingness to “get in the arena.” He says of a good BOE member, “You got to have a servant’s heart. You put the public good above yourself.” Jim’s voice will tell you he is concerned about the CCA in particular. “How do we save it? That’s the purpose of this meeting. It’s not for me to grind an axe, it’s for me to call it out.”

Tenacious. Jim Reid is tenacious, and unafraid to enter the arena.