01/19/11 — Duplin schools elect board chairman ... finally

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Duplin schools elect board chairman ... finally

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on January 19, 2011 1:58 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The third time was the charm for the Duplin County Board of Education.

After two failed attempts to elect a leader, and amid discussion of racial division, the board members voted 4-2 appointing Chuck Farrior of District 4 chairman.

But three attempts were not enough to reach consensus on a vice chairman, as the vote once again split 3-3, this time between former board Chairman Reginald Kenan of District 5 and District 1 board member Willie Gillespie.

Board member Hubert Bowden of District 6 broke with his former votes from previous attempts to elect a chairman, supporting Farrior instead of Kenan for chair.

Bowden called the board's struggle to elect a chairman "a racial issue."

"We have made two attempts to elect a chairman of this board and tonight will be the third attempt, and I don't feel like that we are modeling good behavior for our students. When I look at the breakdown of this board we have three blacks ... and three white board members. And it appears that we are fighting against each other. It seems that we're in a power struggle. I hope that's not the case but that's what I see," Bowden said. "Whatever you want to call it, but in my opinion we're fighting against each other and we should not be. ... What I'm going to do tonight may not be popular but I'm going to have to do the way I feel."

The crowd of attendees at the meeting applauded after Bowden, Farrior, Jennings Outlaw of District 2 and board newcomer Pam Edwards of District 3 elected Farrior chairman. Gillespie and Kenan voted for Kenan in the show of hands.

Outlaw disagreed about the vote being a racial issue.

"We're had very few votes divided along racial lines. I don't consider this a racial issue," he said.

But Bowden saw it differently.

"I've done a lot of praying about this and that's all I can see. You can call it what you want. It doesn't sound good to say this is a racial issue but it is. You've got to look at the demographics of this board," he said. "... People are watching us, they see what we're doing."

Both prior attempts at electing a chairman were divided along racial lines, he said.

Bowden requested that the board not nominate him to the position of vice chairman, expressing concern that the public might see his vote change as an attempt to get the position for himself.

Gillespie nominated Kenan for vice chairman, while Outlaw nominated Gillespie for vice chairman. Bowden, Outlaw and Mrs. Edwards voted for Gillespie as vice chairman and Farrior, Gillespie and Kenan voted for Kenan as vice chairman.

The board moved on to other matters without electing a vice chairman. Superintendent Dr. Austin Obasohan suggested reviewing the board's policy on tiebreakers, but said that "a tie is not a bad thing, it really is not."

Obasohan thanked the board for their leadership. He said that all the board members are qualified to lead, and "whoever is chosen is fine."

"I think this is the time we have to be more united than ever, this is the time we have to be better than ever," Obasohan said.

Farrior thanked the board members for chosing him.

"I do vow to work very hard and put forth my full commitment to the school system," he said.

Kenan also thanked the board for allowing him to serve as chairman, adding that the chairman's position is not about influence.

Bowden compared the vote to the board's inability last fall to come to a decision regarding a proposed memorandum of understanding with the county commissioners -- a memorandum now in place -- that created a solution to the $4.8 million lawsuit judgment against the county. Many of the votes about the memorandum ended in a 3-3 tie.

"We got into the same situation, and it went on and on, and here again I feel like it would have gone on and on here again tonight. That's why I made up my mind with help from God that I would go this way. I feel good within myself and that's why I did what I did," Bowden said.

Obasohan again called for the board to come together for the good of the community.

"This community cannot afford not to be united," he said.

The superintendent gave his own views on race.

"Race is a good thing, a very good thing. I talk about that is how we are created. I have no choice how, where and who I was born to. A child has no choice, but what is important is to realize we are all God's children. To me I think we need to start moving. ... We cannot serve our children if we are not willing to make sacrifices," Obasohan said.

It was "unfortunate" to allow race to become a factor, Gillespie said.

"I've had comments made to me that I completely did not respond to because I felt like I didn't need to. I would be just as supportive of the chair if it was Mrs. Edwards, who is the newest member of the board," Gillespie said. "I, like Mr. Bowden, voted my opinion."

And he hopes that in the future, it will not be necessary to debate race, Gillespie said.

"That means we may have some doubts in our minds as to whether we are totally fair. I feel that I am and I feel that every other board member on this board is, I have no question about that," he said.

But the board "can't get around what exists," Bowden said.

"Our students read the papers, our parents read the papers, in fact I believe all our pictures have been in the paper. We can try and fool ourselves and say race is not in it, but that's far from the truth."

Asked how he thought race influenced the vote, Bowden said the board "broke it tonight."

"And I'll tell you why I voted the way I did: Jesus Christ. I prayed about that, I mean hard and if you want to fight with someone, fight with him. You can't handle him. But I prayed about it and I asked the Lord to open my heart and mind," Bowden said.