04/15/14 — School board argues over how to replace recently deceased member

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School board argues over how to replace recently deceased member

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 15, 2014 1:46 PM

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Wayne County school board members, from left, Dwight Cannon, Rick Pridgen and Arnold Flowers, discuss the method of determining a replacement for the late Thelma Smith of District 3 during a meeting Monday night.

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Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor pauses for a moment during Monday's Board of Education meeting.

It took four votes, all split, before the Wayne County Board of Education Monday night could decide on how to go about naming a replacement to fill the unexpired term of the late Thelma Smith.

But before they did, tempers flared and there was a rash of terse comments -- including some that were tinged with political and racial undertones.

The decision on the process for filling the seat was somewhat of a compromise. Board members agreed 4-2 to submit the names of people they already knew who are interested in the job.

And rather than advertising the opening, the board will simply accept applications until April 25 from any qualified person living in District 3.

Those names will then be compiled by Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor and given to all board members in time for them to study prior to the board's May 5 meeting.

The school board did not mention asking for any input from Wayne County commissioners.

Board member Dr. Dwight Cannon said unspecified hidden agendas and motives were driving the discussion and possible selection of the new member.

Cannon said he and other board members already had names of potential candidates in mind, including one that had been given to him by Mrs. Smith.

However, no nominees were was identified during the meeting as the board spent an hour trying to nail down a procedure it could use not only in this case, but in the future as well.

Cannon suggested that the process be conducted in closed session, but was told by board attorney Jack Edwards that the state's Open Meeting Law requires the discussions and vote be done in public.

After the meeting Cannon, said he could not identify the person he had mentioned because he had not spoken to her and did not know if she was interested in serving.

Cannon stirred the debate when he insisted that the seat be filled by a minority since that was the reason the district was carved out in the first place. He also objected to efforts by some board members to advertise the opening as a fair way of having people offer themselves as potential candidates.

Other board members including Chris West and Arnold Flowers said they did not disagree that the seat needed to be filled by a minority candidate, but that they were concerned that Cannon's approach would eliminate many people in the district from being able to seek the office.

If that is the case, it would not be fair to those people, they said.

Flowers even asked if state law required that a minority be appointed, which seemed to anger Cannon. There is no such provision. The nominee just has to be a resident of the district.

The district was carved out so minorities would have a fair chance to represent their constituency, Cannon said.

"Are you saying that no white person need apply?" Flowers said.

"I don't think that is what I am saying because you can be Hispanic and not be white," Cannon said. "The word I used was minority. I did not use a color."

Having minority districts does not mean black or Hispanics cannot run in other districts, he said.

"You know, as well as I know, that the county has not always been fair when it came to elections," Cannon said. "I didn't make the process (voting districts). It didn't happen under my watch."

Cannon then made a motion that board members take the names they have and decide whom they would appoint from among those. Rick Pridgen seconded the motion.

Flowers and West renewed their concerns the approach would not be fair.

"The word 'fair' is the operative word," Cannon said. "To be fair we do not, I feel, need to advertise so that this board could do its meandering if that is the wish of the board. We know what Mrs. Thelma wanted. She made it very clear to those who were close to her. To ignore that is not fair.

"Also to me it is not fair that we stack this board, even though we are nonpartisan, in a way that we can manipulate whether there will be a replacement of the superintendent, replacement of central office staff. I am always leery when new people come on board and they have to deal with the personalities of this board of education and everybody has their hidden agenda, or their particular agenda, whether it is hidden or not. I tend to prefer to call it hidden."

The board does not need to wait just to advertise, he said.

When people look at the school board, they need to see people they can approach, he said. Both majorities and minorities can be unfair, he added.

"My thing is we need somebody who looks like us," Cannon said. "We need somebody who can understand our plight -- somebody who has been where we have been. Whether you wait 10 days, 20 days or a year, my thing is you cannot avoid the issue and use that caveat of being fair.

"Fair is not in a political system. I am a new politician, and I have not seen that much fairness yet."

Cannon's motion failed 3-3, with Cannon, Pridgen and Chairman John Grantham voting yes and West, Flowers and Eddie Radford voting no.

Flowers later made a motion, seconded by West, to advertise for 10 days so that people could contact the board if they are interested in serving.

It failed 3-3 with Flowers, West and Radford voting yes and Grantham, Cannon and Pridgen voting no.

Grantham followed up with a motion to revisit Cannon's original motion for members to select from names they already have. Added to that was that people interested in serving contact any school board member by April 25.

The motion to revisit Cannon's original motion passed 4-2, with West and Radford voting no.

The vote to use the compromise procedure was approved 4-2, with West and Radford again voting no.