Liberty County NAACP President Graylan Quarterman said only two school board candidates declined invitations to appear at a recent candidate’s forum.
One, District 6 representative Dr. Yvette Keel, was in Alabama with an ailing relative going into hospice care, according to an email read aloud by Quarterman during the May 3 forum at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center.
The other, District 5’s Marcus Scott IV, declined to attend in part because of another commitment, he wrote in an email read aloud by Quarterman.
But Scott claimed he got late notice due to the NAACP using the wrong phone number.
He also wrote Quarterman “is an unethical man that uses this great organization for his personal gain and I cannot support anything he does,” according to an email read aloud by Quarterman which claims he used “NAACP resources to campaign against me, which is against NAACP guidelines.”
The Liberty NAACP head then read out his response, which said the number was pulled from Scott’s qualifying form at the voter registration office. Quarterman said Scott’s handwriting on that form was “not legible,” but agreed the NAACP was a great organization.
“I will not lower myself to speak to alleged character flaws,” Quarterman wrote. “I will only speak to the facts. You have the right to file a complaint to address your concerns. If you are unsure of the process, we will provide it at your request.”
The rest of the night took a more hopeful tone, starting with candidates for District 4, Karen Branson, Jim Johns and Annette Payne noting they would support whoever won the seat because each was a good candidate.
“We’re even hosting a town hall meeting together,” Branson said, “Because that’s how we roll in District 4.”
District 5 challenger Dr. Chante Baker Martin and District 6 candidate Donita Strickland then took turns having the stage to themselves.
Then, Lily Baker, the school board chairwoman seeking a fourth term, and her challenger, Scott Carrier, had their opportunity. All candidates were given two and a half minutes to introduce themselves before being given a minute each to answer various panel questions posed by moderators Daisy Jones and Luke Moses.
Audience members also got to ask questions during the event, which included an opportunity for candidates to make closing remarks.
Some of the questions were broad, such as whether candidates supported arming teachers.
All were opposed.
“I am comfortable around guns,” said Payne, a longtime classroom teacher. “I am not comfortable having a gun on me around students.”
Johns, a businessman and retired Army first sergeant, joked he might not be around if some of his teachers in high school had been armed.
“Some teachers have got a quick button, too,” he said. “When I went to school in the ’60s and long hair started, well, if they carried guns I wouldn’t be sitting here tonight.”Johns, who like the rest of the candidates supported school resource officers in schools, did offer a qualification.
“He needs to be 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” Johns said. “He doesn’t need to be at retirement age. I’m a retired first sergeant, and I can tell you, if you’re a combat soldier out there, combat is for young people, it isn’t for old chubby people. If you’ve got a student body of 1,500 and you’re spread out on a campus over nine acres, you’ve got to be 10 foot tall and bulletproof and part superman to get to where that problem is.”
Candidates were for school discipline and parental involvement, and also said they wanted fair treatment of minority and women owned businesses seeking contracts with the school system, and more.
But in response to more specific questions on the board of education’s issues with AdvancED, candidates ruminated on the proper role of school board members and the necessity of showing a united front once a vote is taken.
At the same time, challengers seemed hesitant to criticize current members for some of the problems the accrediting agency recently reported.
“I really cannot speak to that issue, except to say that I do not know,” Strickland said, which drew applause. She, like others, said she would learn the issues by asking questions.
Branson, a businesswoman who wants children to be prepared for a global economy, said she wanted to look ahead rather than back.
“Vote for me and judge me according to what I do, not for what’s already been done,” she said.
Martin, an English professor at Savannah State, said “there were clear tensions on the board,” and that board members should remember the priority is supposed to be students and their achievements.
Baker, however, said there are issues, one of which is that board members can’t be told what to do. She said the chairman is just one member, not the head of the board.
“We have attempted to address every issue that has come before us,” she said, before noting that there are members who won’t attend training or come to events. “You cannot control that individual. If you think I’m telling a lie, look at the person sitting next to you and tell them to jump and see if they move.”
Without naming names, Baker said the board members who sent letters to AdvancED or aired differences on social media “were working against your children and my children.”
Carrier, however, said AdvancED’s power to strip accreditation — Liberty County School System was recently put on what is essentially probation by the agency over board of education dysfunction — would have far reaching impact. He said the chairman can make board members follow rules.
“The leader of the board of education has to make sure the members of the board follow guidelines they need to follow,” he said. “And if they weren’t, as leader I would find a strategy making sure we did what was necessary as established by AdvancED.”
He also claimed teachers are leaving better paying jobs in Liberty to work elsewhere because lack of support from administrators and the school board.
Both Baker and Carrier have long careers in education, and both said the biggest misconception in the public is the school board runs the school system.
That’s Superintendent Dr. Franklin Perry’s job, both said.
“The superintendent handles day-to-day operations,” Baker said. “The board deals with policies and budget.”
Baker also took issue with claims the school board held illegal meetings, claims that were noted in the AdvancED report.
“I can assure you that’s a lie,” she said. “We do not have meetings behind closed doors.”
Carrier did not accuse the current school board of illegal meetings, but said transparency is key to a good board.
Candidates also answered questions on bus safety — they were for it, and finding the funding bus monitors — and the need to be good stewards of taxpayer money.
Some, like Johns and Branson, touted their business experience and wish to give back. Others, their work in the school system or other venues of education. All said it important to work together if elected.
“I don’t think we need to be friends on the board, we don’t go there to be friends,” said Strickland, a nurse who taught in Liberty County. “But it is necessary to have a united front. It doesn’t matter if you’ve argued, bickered and complained, after the vote is taking and in front of the public you need to provide a united front.”
Candidates also expressed their belief the school system has the resources to provide students with a top education, while also touting a love for Liberty County and desire to serve its children.
Early voting continues through Saturday. The primary is May 22.