Local legislative delegates say they will look at the way the school board chairman is elected, after voters in the Republican primary overwhelmingly said they would favor an at-large chairman.
"You don't want to haphazardly make changes," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans. "We want to look at it and move that process forward, but nobody wants to mess up a school system that is considered one of the best in the state."
Among the 12 nonbinding questions on Columbia County's Republican ballot in the Aug. 20 primary was one that asked voters their preference for electing the county's school board chairman.
An overwhelming majority - 85.4 percent - said they would favor electing a chairman that would represent all districts.
"I was a little surprised at the one-sidedness of it," said board Chairman Wayne Bridges. "I think the questions were worded to lend themselves to a yes vote."
The issue first came up during this past legislative session when delegates considered putting the question to voters in a binding referendum on the November ballot.
"We had a lot of comments: 'If you are going to do it for the county commission chairman, you ought to do the same for the school board chairman. That way the districts could be the same for both bodies,"' said State Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling. "I think it enhances the people's representation - gives them two out of five that they vote on."
School board members didn't like it then and they don't like it now.
"I am against it," said Trustee Mildred Blackburn. "I really feel it would detract from the contact that each of us has with our district. We are all in favor of keeping the five districts and letting the board members decide who should be chairman."
The discussions mirror talks after a nonbinding referendum in the 2000 general election in which voters approved changing the structure of county government. The county commission then formed a task force to study the ramifications of having an at-large chairman. In the Aug. 20 primary, Ron Cross was elected as the county's first at-large commission chairman.
"The county commission put together a task force to study it and then it was voted on," Harbin said. "I think that's why there was such a smooth transition."
Now, he said he hopes the school board will do the same.
"Let's study the issue and get ready to put together a binding ballot question," Harbin said. "If we are going to do it, it needs to be done by the next election. It would give the whole county a voice they would elect. But what are the powers (of the chairman)? How is it set up to work with the superintendent? Those questions need to be answered before we move forward."
Board members, however, feel that the response to the question on the Republican ballot was not enough reason to change.
"What percentage of our county voted?" said board member Roxanne Whitaker, noting that turnout was only 28 percent. "I don't think that straw pole is necessarily indicative of the feelings of our county."
Trustee Lee Muns said since it is a nonpartisan office, all of the voters should decide on the issue before moving forward.
"If it's a question relevant to a non-partisan office, then everyone should have the opportunity to voice their opinion," Muns said.
He said voters likely favor having an at-large chairman because they no longer have the power to elect a superintendent. Harbin agreed.
"I think that's a part of the reason," Rep. Harbin said. "People want to have someone responsible for the system that they can vote on to be sure the school system is moving in the same direction all the time."
Board member Roxanne Whitaker and Muns are the only two who said they might be interested in running for chairman if the chairman were elected at-large. Trustee Regina Buccafusco said it is too early to even talk about it.
"I don't think a political party forum is the place for a question like that," she said. "It's like surveying all the Smiths in town. It's a select group to begin with. Most people don't read any of the questions until they walk into the voting both, so their first inclination may be to vote yes. If you are going to change government, you should have all the pros and cons.
"Who formulated these questions? Mr. Starks? Has he ever been to a board meeting? Then how can he understand the relationship of the board? I don't take that as a mandate. We need to sit down with everyone involved and discuss it, then bring it to the people in the general election. You have to educate people about what they are voting on."
Bridges said if the system changes, whoever runs for chairman should be prepared for the duty of serving the entire county.
"If you are talking about a chairman that is going to look after the whole county, it's going to be a time consuming task," Bridges said.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.