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April 12 - PHELPS ON POLITICS: A 51-Day School Board Election Cycle is Too Short in Chatham County

Category: Local Govts & Politics

 PHELPS ON POLITICS - " A 51-Day School Board Election Cycle is Too Short in Chatham County"

By Lou Phelps, President, Coastal Empire News

April 12, 2018 - Decisions made by the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education and the Georgia General Assembly back in 2011 have come home to roast this Spring.

The entire election cycle to run for the SCCPSS Board of Education is only 51 days long. That leaves little time for challengers to run against an incumbent, or for the large field of candidates for the open Board President seat to get their message out countywide. And, voters have little time to meet the candidates, and understand their platforms and views on public education - beliefs that will affect the future of one of the largest public school systems in Georgia. 

Back in 2011, while Joe Buck was in his fifth year as Board President before, political strategists decided it would be MUCH more advantageous for those running for the Board of Ed to get off of the November General Election cycle – when voter turnout is high – and instead hold school board races on the State of Georgia’s official Primary date each year.

The problem is, when that decision was made, the Georgia Primary was held every two years in July.  

Voter qualifying back then was the same that it is now – the first full week of March.  Back in July 2012, that at least provided more than four months for voters to learn about candidates for arguably the most important election position in Chatham County:  educating 34,000 students, overseeing a $442 million budget, insuring the qualifications and success of more than 5,000 employees, and making decisions on $600 million in new school construction projects.

But on July 12, 2013, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ordered Georgia to move its primary from July to May each year, on the third Tuesday in May. following a civil suit that sought to insure more time between the primaries, potential run-offs, and the General election in November.   

The result of that action now leaves candidates - and voters - in Chatham County with an extremely short election period for all nine seats on the Board of Elections, including the Board President race where candidates must run countywide. The latter is a daunting task for any candidate, even those with high name recognition.

In earlier years, long before the switch from the General election cycle to the Primary election took place as of July 2012, another change took place when the Board of Education elections were changed from partisan to non-partisan contests.    

Of course, even though local elections are often nonpartisan by law across the U.S., they are not isolated from or immune to partisan politics.  One can argue, in fact, that non-partisan elections hide a candidate’s true political views from the electorate.

Our municipal elections are non-partisan, but held in November. 

This year, the qualification week to run in the May 22 school board races was March 5 to 9.  Early voting, by Georgia law, begins April 30 … just 18 days from now.  That means that the candidates only have 51 days to campaign … even for the countywide Board President race. And, the high rates of voters who vote early and by absentee ballots is well-documented ... and increasing.  Any candidate that thinks the election is May 22 is doomed to lose. 

In a year with an open Board President seat, and a continuing list of failing schools - and others just barely missing that designation - only one public candidate debate has been announced.  Georgia Southern’s College of Education and Dept. of Anthropology will hold a debate, thanks to Ned Rinalducci’s leadership, a professor at GSU and Jolene Byrne’s husband.

The event will take place at the Armstrong Center, 13040 Abercorn Street, but that debate will be between the five candidates for Board President. 

No public debates have been announced for those races in Districts 4, 5, 6 and 8. For a change, there are challengers to two of the incumbants, and multiple candidates in the race for Larry Lower’s now open seat. Only incumbent Shawn Kachmar, representing District 4, does not face a challenger.  

Current Board Member Larry Lower in District 6 is running for Board President, along with Tyesha “Tye” Whitely, Dr. David Lerch, Betty Morgan and Dr. Joseph “Joe” Buck.  Lerch is a previous member of the Board, as is Buck.

Buck, now in his late 70’s, was elected Board President twelve years ago in 2006, after retiring as an administrator at Armstrong State University. That year, in a contentious field with five candidates, Buck only received 35% of the total vote, and faced second-place finished Hugh Golson.  That race was held as part of the regular November 2006 General Election cycle, the election cycle when the majority of the statewide candidates run, including Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and all of Chatham County’s judges.

In that Nov. 2006 election. 55.965 people voted.  In the run-off in December, however, only 20,000 people showed up.  Buck got his vote back to the polls, and won 14,031 to Golson’s 6,172.  The latter’s Democratic, and heavily black vote, did not come back to the polls. 

In the November race, Buck had to face former Mayor Floyd Adams, who got 14,151 votes; Sadie C. Brown, who received 4,066 votes; and Jackie Sommers, who pulled 3,178 votes. Buck had received just over 19,000 votes and Golson, just over 14,000.  

The vote from the three black candidates alone had totaled more than 21,000 votes, plus Golson’s own 14, 200 – 35,000 votes - versus the 19,690 who initially voted for Buck.  But those 35,000 who voted for the other four in the race didn’t show up for the run-off to support Golson.

When Buck ran for re-election in 2010, he was unopposed. 

But in 2014, after eight years as Board President, he did not seek re-election. The election was now in May, the first time the race had been held so early, after the federal court decision.

Jolene Byrne won 40% of the vote initially, and easily won her seat in the run-off.  She had also faced a field of five candidates for Board President, including the candidate that Buck had supported to take over for him – political consultant and lobbyist David Simons. 

After being trounced by Byrne in May, Simons surprised many by dropping out of the July run-off, almost unheard of in local political history.  

The other eight seats on the Board of Ed are held in staggered four-year terms, all in May.

And, what a difference a May versus November election can make.

Like Byrne, who had worked within the SCCPSS system, two highly qualified women candidates are running for Board President this year, Tye Whitely and Betty Morgan. Both have strong resumes, and have worked for years as local educators.  Also running is Dr. David Lerch, a national education consultant. Larry Lower, now 80, has been an active member of the Chatham County Republican Party, and is expected to have support at least from his current district. 

In the May 2016 election, when Districts 1, 2, 3 and 7 Board seats were up for re-election or election, only 23,000 people went to the polls, a vast difference from the average vote tally in Chatham County in an average November election.

And, in fact, the majority of the members of the SCCPSS Board of Education NOW sitting – with the exception of Byrne who won a County-wide race with a large field of candidates – were elected in May 2014 or May 2016 by only 2,000 voters OR LESS in their districts, and most were unopposed the last time they ran. 

In summary, it’s clearly past time for local officials to move the School Board elections back to the November cycle, back to when there was adequate time to launch a decent campaign for office, and back to when local organizations and neighborhood associations had time to hold a series of public debates.    

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