NOTHING DRAWS a crowd like the promise of bloodsport.
I mean, for sure, it was a noble interest in our children’s future that inspired 175 or so folks to show up at last Wednesday’s debate between candidates running for Savannah-Chatham School Board President.
The outcome of the May 20 election will affect every resident from the tip of Tybee to the outskirts of Pooler whether you’ve got kids in public school or not, and everyone wants to choose the candidate that best represents their values and concerns.
Still, the air inside the JEA auditorium crackled with the sense that this might be a little more thrilling that your average PTA meeting. After all, this is a race that’s already brought out taxation issues, ethics complaints and a man in a chicken suit.
“Let the games begin,” murmured Savannah Classical Academy founder Roger Moss as moderator and WSAV anchor Dave Kartunen tapped his mike.
Organized by public school parents Anne Hart of SouthernMamas.com and Michelle Solomon, the debate brought all five contenders together to present their particular approach to thankless public service. In addition to receiving the salary equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter, the “winner” will shoulder a Sisyphean load of responsibilities, including the appointment of a new school superintendent in 2016.
“Why would anyone want to be school board president?” wondered longtime board member Julie Wade, who had just left a seven and a half hour school board meeting about proposed bell times for next year.
(Don’t let her fool you; Wade dedicates a massive portion of her life to this community and might have been on the ballot herself if she hadn’t been so busy surviving breast cancer this year. Read her inspiring Facebook blog, Running Through Chemo.)
The reasons appear to be uniform: Each candidate clearly understands that our local economy, crime rate and quality of life in Savannah starts at school. How to affect those areas in a meaningful and positive way is what’s up for debate.
“Savannah rises and falls with the state of its public education,” summed up former Groves High Engish teacher and current Savannah State professor Jolene Byrne, who recounted how her own education broke a generations-old cycle of poverty.
As a proponent of project-based learning, Byrne used the Tybee Maritime Academy as an example of how the district needs to replicate its successes. However, some parents in the crowd who have been subjected to indecipherable homework assignments whispered that they’d rather see less open-ended projects about what fabrics were worn in the American Revolution and “more damn math problems.”
While Byrne is the only candidate with a child currently in the public school system, several others bring decades of experience to the table. Sadie Brown taught for 37 years in local schools and calls herself a “warrior for our children.” Rev. Chester Ellis also spent over three decades in the classroom and helped found the nationally-lauded Woodville-Tompkins trade program.
“I come as a servant answering the call,” nodded Ellis in his introductory minute-and-a-half.
While their aims may be the same, some candidates went to great lengths and expense to set themselves apart from each other. George Seaborough used his 90 seconds to focus on teacher appreciation as his minions handed out roses to the educators in the crowd.
“I don’t even buy my wife flowers,” grumbled the last candidate, Dave Simons, who is running on a platform of economic austerity and focused vocational training.
Moderator Kartunen masterfully managed the time limits and asked creative questions about respective positions on standardized testing and teacher incentives. All the candidates but Brown agreed that there shouldn’t be automatic access from one pathway to another, i.e. Garrison to Savannah Arts Academy. Everyone hates the lottery system, but Byrne conceded it’s the best we’ve got until there are better school choices.
Things got sparky when candidates were asked to expound on their perfect classroom. Simons refused to answer, saying that “it’s not the job of the school board to design a curriculum.”
While there was no actual bloodshed, the evening delivered its promise of entertainment when it came to proposed budget solutions. Brown advocated to rework transportation costs without cutting classroom time, and Byrne proposed bringing back a full-time grant writer to generate more revenue for the district.
Simons reiterated his oath to never, ever raise the millage rate, asking rhetorically, “Who likes property taxes?”
He seemed stupefied when more than half the people in the room raised their hands.
“We’d pay higher taxes if it meant better schools,” shouted a voice from the back.
While I pump my fist in solidarity to that, there are plenty of other voters for whom the very thought of paying another penny to the government inspires gastric distress. Raised palms aside, the room erupted into groans when Seaborough mentioned “ESPLOST 3.”
It’s important to note that the non-partisan school board president election was moved from its usual November slot to coincide with primary elections this year. That promises an outsized Republican turnout, and Simons is obviously counting on the bellicose anti-tax voting base to elect him.
You may be surprised that I didn’t completely disagree with everything Simons said—I do so love ruthless de-cluttering of closets and budgets. However, an ethics complaint was filed last week contending that Simons has continued to act as a lobbyist for certain local contractors bidding on—wait for it—jobs with the Savannah Chatham School district.
As a wise man said recently about Savannah politics, “conflict of interest is baked in the cake here.”
Closing remarks came right on time. Rev. Ellis had left early to lead Wednesday night services, which begs the question of whether he would choose church or state when school board meetings run past the eight hour mark. Byrne and Brown reiterated their positions, and Seaborough followed up with his signature charm. What, no cupcakes?
Actually, speaking of such, SouthernMamas has arranged a sweet reward for voters on May 20: Flash your “I’m a Georgia Voter” peach sticker at Gigi’s Cupcakes, Two Smart Cookies, Uncle Maddio’s Pizza or Leopold’s Ice Cream and receive a special treat. (If you collect from all four, you deserve the just desserts of a big bellyache.)
Of course, the biggest prize would be a huge turnout at the polls next Tuesday. No matter who wins, this election is sure to show us what we’re made of.