With the county schools facing another surge in enrollment in coming years, voters in District 3 have a choice to make on May 20 to determine who will help shepherd the system through that period of growth.
Voters must decide whether to return incumbent Trustee Mike Sleeper for another term or to introduce some new blood into the board by selecting Staten Heard, a retired manufacturing logistics specialist.
Sleeper, a computer security specialist who evaluates strategic technologies for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said he thinks the board has done a good job handling the growth it has been experiencing -- adding more than 500 children each school year. He knows it will only increase with addition of thousands more military and civilian jobs at Fort Gordon in coming years.
“The biggest challenge will be handling the growth,” Sleeper said. “That’s the main thing we are siting here thinking about -- growth.”
Despite some lean financial years, however, Sleeper said the board has already done a lot to prepare for the swelling enrollments and has a building expansion plan for the next decade..
Two new schools just opened this year and the new Martinez Elementary School is planned to be open in the next school year. More schools are in the planning stages, including another elementary school which will be built on William Few Parkway.
Sleeper’s opponent agrees the county seems to be managing its resources and planning well, but Heard says that doesn’t mean things can’t improve.
“Columbia County has a very good school system and I don’t see making any sweeping changes,” said Heard, who retired 2003 as the director of North American logistics with General Motors. “We have to continue doing what we are doing, but it needs to be accelerated,” he said.
After his retirement, Heard said he spent the next four years, working and volunteering in the Pontiac, Mich. schools before he was recruited to work for E-Z-Go in Augusta. He retired again in 2011. He and his wife, Sandra, have been raising three of their grandchildren in Columbia County.
“I figured that I’ve always had a passion for kids and learning and I figured that now is the time to apply everything that I have learned, everything that I have done and go for the school board,” he said.
If anyone understands the impact that education can have on a child’s life, it is Heard, who began school in 1954, just a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down racially segregated schools in Kansas and paved the way for desegregation across the nation.
“Even as a young person, I realized that better schools, better quality, better governance absolutely made a difference,” he said.
Heard went on to become the first college graduate in his family, earning a degree from Wichita State University. Heard said has experience and a different perspective, something that the schools will need to consider as the county continues to grow and diversifies.
“I think my experience in governance and leadership in private industry is an asset. I’ve also had kids in school over 25 years. I’ve been involved in six different school districts,” he said. “Not to say that you come in and start changing things, but you have a broader perspective of how things can work, and how to apply things differently. You can’t look at it in the same way you have always done.”
Sleeper, an Evans High School graduate, who served as an Army Ranger before earning degrees at Augusta State University and the University of Georgia, said he too is aware of the county’s changing demographics.
He said for many years, the county has had an active minority recruitment program, which seeks candidates from diverse backgrounds for all positions.
“It is about getting the quality candidates,” he said. “We recognize whether it is socioeconomic or racial, we want to blend in and work with our different communities whatever that may be.”
Another aspect of growth is that new students coming into the system have different educational experiences, which might or might not compare favorably with Columbia County.
“As you get more students in there, have they had the same instructional background as our students have had? In some cases, they aren’t necessarily as prepared as their peers are,” Sleeper said.
Sleeper, admits he is passionate about technology as a tool for education and is excited about improvements in Columbia County’s technical education programs, which he has been a champion of in recent years.
“We are trying to move all these technical programs to the point so that when kids finish their two or three years in that program they don’t just get a diploma, but they also get industry certification, which will give them a leg up over anybody else who wants to apply for those jobs,” he said. “It will get these kids career ready.”
You can’t look at it in the same way you have always done; you have to change your thought process.”
“Let’s face it, the county is growing it is more diverse, but I don’t see it reflected in the school board,” he said.