Voters got a chance to hear where school board hopefuls stood on a number of issues in the first Bryan County Board of Education Candidate’s Forum, held Thursday in Richmond Hill.
Those issues included growth, improving communication between parents and school officials, the responsibilities of BoE members and school uniforms.
But the most contentious may have been the long term future of school superintendent Dr. Sallie Brewer, who recently had her contract renewed through 2010.
Current District 3 representative Jeff Morton, who is facing former two-term BoE Chair Carrol Ann Coleman for the vice chairman seat, was the only BoE member to vote against renewing Brewer’s contract Tuesday.
He had praise for Brewer – who attended the forum – calling her a hard worker who "loves this system very much." But Morton also reiterated his decision to vote against renewing her contract. He pointed to out-of-state travel, which became a controversial issue in 2006 when Richmond Hill’s band wasn’t allowed to go to Washington D.C.
"When I first got on the board … I thought it was an official policy," Morton said. "It was not until later on we determined there is not a travel policy."
He said BoE attorney Gerald Edenfield provided board members with a 75 page legal brief outlining why out of state travel shouldn’t be allowed.
"To me, that was trying to influence (the board’s) decision and what I thought was we should be able to discuss it together," he said.
Coleman said she struggled with the appropriateness of the question regarding Brewer – who recently got a second-straight perfect report card from the board, according to outgoing vice chair Frances Meeks.
"I can’t rate her performance. I haven’t been there for 18 months," Coleman said before reciting the number of students and employees Brewer is responsible for. "What I can tell you about though is the job she does and the magnitude of the things she has to do."
Candace Piper, who is seeking the District 3 seat being vacated by Morton, said she would have no problem removing a superintendent who didn’t accomplish goals set by the BoE. But, Piper said she was uncertain that was the case with Brewer.
"Over the last five years our graduation rate has increased almost 20 percent, it’s up to almost 82 percent," Piper said. "Our SAT scores compete with anyone and our CRCT scores are among the highest in the state. If you’re talking about what is important here, it’s the education of the children."
Piper said she thought some of the things parents blamed on Brewer should instead be aimed at current board members.
"I think some other people have some responsibility for things," she said.
Piper’s opponents, Charles Blakewood – who ended his campaign after the forum – and Charlie Johnson had differing views.
Blakewood was also against removing Brewer, unless she refused to accept more control from the BoE. Johnson, however, was bluntly opposed to Brewer’s contract extension.
"I feel she let students down and our community down," he said, "with the position she’s taken on out of state travel for so long. Kids travel out of state in just about every school system I’ve ever heard of. To take away an opportunity for a group of kids to go to our White House and play is just this side of criminal in my opinion."
Johnson also pointed to what he said was her lack of support for extracurricular activities – an opinion echoed by District 2 candidate Dennis Seger.
Seger said since the matter had already been decided, it was really a non issue, though if he had to do it he would be opposed to her contract renewal because of her lack of support for "extra curricular activities."
"Education and finance wise, Dr. Brewer has done an outstanding job," he said. "But she doesn’t take that next step outside education."
Wanda Lane, who like Seger is seeking the District 2 seat, said she wasn’t for or against Brewer.
"I’m not going to make this election about Dr. Brewer because it’s not," she said. "It’s about choosing a second district candidate to represent the people on the school board."
She said when the time came to decide on Brewer’s contract, Lane would research the facts and get input from constituents before making a decision. But she also defended the superintendent.
"A lot of times parents get upset and everybody likes to place blame on somebody," Lane said. "Sometimes they don’t research where the blame goes. I was guilty of that myself. But when we research it, you realize some times some of the issues people holding Dr. Brewer accountable for, actually the board made those decisions."
Brewer returned a phone call about the forum Friday, but said little.
"I have absolutely no comment," she said.
Approximately 65 people attended the forum, which was sponsored by the News and Richmond Hill Bryan County Chamber of Commerce. Space for the event was donated by Gene and Carol Brogdon and Pembroke Telephone provided equipment and videotaped the event for broadcast on the company's public access channel.