During a political forum held on June 14 at North Oconee High School, candidates for Chairman of the Oconee County Board of Education answered questions about a perceived bias among school board members, improvements in education, and how board members' public support of a particular candidate might play a part in the upcoming election.
The forum was sponsored by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by journalist Tim Bryant of 1340 WGAU.
Current Vice Chair Mike Hunter and retired principal Tom Odom hope to replace Chairman David Weeks, who announced in May that he would not seek re-election.
Odom served in the Oconee County school system for 19 years as principal of Malcolm Bridge Middle School and Oconee County Middle School, and as interim principal of North Oconee County High School before retirement. He announced his candidacy shortly after Weeks' announcement.
Mike Hunter vacated his Post 4 position in late May in order to run for Chairman. He has served on the school board for four years, and been Vice Chair for the last two. Hunter also has experience as the Board's Legislative Liaison and as a Facilities and Finance contact.
Fixing Perceived Bias Towards Schools
In response to a question from the audience, both candidates said they were not aware of any bias by school board members toward certain schools.
Odom said the school board must to strive to represent and support all students at all times.
"You have to be for all the students and not be for one single issue or one single group," he said. "You have to do that in your discussions. You have to do it in your dialogue with community members. You have to do it in your daily actions. Every decision has to be in the best interest of the students — all the students."
Hunter assured audience members that there was no bias on the part of the school board, and that perceived bias most likely stemmed from distribution of funds designated for school improvements.
"There is no bias on the Board we have now," Hunter said. "We are for every student at every school. One of the challenges we have now in Oconee County is when we have a five-year SPLOST, or something like that, we don't raise but about $25 million. I'm sure the question has to do with facilities being equal. Unfortunately, when [North Oconee's] beautiful facilities were built, it did not have athletic facilities, and with part of the SPLOST that we have now, we are trying to remedy that."
School Board Members' Endorsement of Hunter
The question of whether it is bad policy for the school board to publically support one candidate over the other arose.
Board members Kim Argo, Mark Thomas and Wayne Bagley accompanied Hunter to The Oconee Enterprise when he announced his candidacy. Hunter also noted he had consulted them before deciding to run and had their support when he was interviewed on radio station 1340 WGAU.
During the debate, Hunter said that each Board member has to make his/her own decision, and that he supports members' rights to publicly announce their political beliefs.
"I certainly did discuss my running for the Chair with them as well as with other officials and family in Oconee County," Hunter said. "My personal belief is it’s fine to do that. One of the things you find out real quickly on a Board like this is you have to have relationships with each member on the Board. I like for people to have the opportunity to speak for themselves."
When asked whether he felt relations on the Board would be strained if he were elected, Odom said that he was unconcerned about the members' open support of his opponent.
"My dealings with people have always been honest, open and forthright," Odom said. "I like to lead by example and as board Chair, you have to enter into dialogue with a lot of people. What I can say is that I've worked with all kinds of different people and Lord knows I've worked in all different situations. Whatever they want to do — however they want to support Mr. Hunter, that's their business."
Enhancing Education without Spending Money
Statewide cuts to education budgets have been a recurring challenge for school systems. Both candidates said they'd attempt to improve educational standards without increasing expenditures by working closely with school staff and teachers.
Hunter said one way to raise standards is to recognize staff and faculty for excellent work.
"We do an outstanding job of recognizing our students for their academic and athletic accomplishments," he said. "One thing we probably don't do well enough is recognize our teachers for the work they do. We need to make people feel they are part of a team, to use team work to remove hurdles."
Hunter also said improvements would come through a new curriculum developed by Superintendent Jason Branch and Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Claire Miller.
In order to improve the high academic standards in Oconee County, Odom said school officials would have to "dig deeper."
"There are three school systems that are talked about in this state — Fayette, Forsyth and Oconee County. But once you reach a certain level it is much more difficult to get higher," Odom said. "I am sure School Board members and the citizens of this county want to go national with that record. And you have to have a professional learning environment for teachers. If the teachers can get better at their at their trade --and sometimes they don't understand they can get better even if they are good-- but if they get better, then students will get better."
During his closing statement, Odom said he has always been passionate about serving the community.
"A lot of my close friends said, 'Are you crazy?'" Odom said. "But I have been a servant all of my career for more than 30 years. My wife Kristy who is back here... we have two great sons, and both of them graduated from Oconee County schools. I've worked in the [Oconee County Chamber of Commerce] and in the Rotary Club. I've done Boy Scout raising and even Oconee County Little League. I really want to give back to the community in this way."
Hunter said it has been "an honor" to serve, as it would be to continue to do so.
"I will have, after this election, six months to continue to build relationship with Dr. Branch," Hunter said. "As I've already mentioned I already have the relationship with my current board members, three of which will be on that board in January 2013. I look forward to that opportunity and I appreciate you supporting me in that in the primaries."