Nearly a year ago, Columbia County voters in the Republican Party primary chose Ron Cross as the chairman of the County Commission, the first person elected to the post since voters said they wanted to be able to decide who leads the Commission. Then, GOP voters said they also wanted to elect their School Board chairman, too.
With no general election opposition, the primary victory made Cross the new chairman. And with 85 percent of the vote, the straw poll on the School Board chairmanship sent a strong message that voters would like direct input into who holds the post.
That is just about as clear as things get in politics - but somehow, this whole thing has gotten murkier than Clarks Hill Lake after a heavy rain.
Its obvious most trustees and school officials like things just the way they are. Thats perfectly understandable; the school system is, by most accounts, a well-run operation delivering high-quality public education to Columbia Countys children. Any change potentially threatens that quality.
But theres also the plain ol fear of change, which seems to be the cloud keeping trustees and a task force they appointed from seeing clearly that electing a school board chairman just may be a good idea.
Voters certainly like the idea. Even though it was just a straw poll, and only on the GOP ballot, the response last August was so overwhelming that even if all Democrats voting that day had been dead-set against it, the question - Are you in favor of having the chairman of the Columbia County Board of Education elected by countywide vote? - still would have easily passed.
Trustees at first ignored the results. They finally were shamed into addressing the issue when members of the countys legislative delegation in December said point-blank - after weeks of polite hints failed - that, yes, they expected the school board to study the issue and recommend the best way to implement voters wishes.
The board had an easy pattern to follow. When voters said they favored electing the County Commission chairman, commissioners set up a task force to study county government. The task force recommended adding an elected chairman to the existing five-member Commission; lawmakers instead approved the current plan, with four commissioners and a chairman elected countywide.
The results are still too early to judge, but Cross thus far has done a fine job as chairman - especially in reinforcing a countywide perspective among the district-elected commissioners.
The School Board should have followed that path. Instead, trustees from the beginning made clear their distrust of the voters wishes. And because they wanted no change from status quo, their appointed task force obliged, bogging itself down in a fog of second-guessing.
I dont think theyve studied anything, says state Rep. Ben Harbin, chairman of Columbia Countys legislative delegation. I think they just sat around and talked.
The task force report does little to dispute Harbins criticism. The meat of the report is a summary of nine questions and answers, mostly skirting the main issue of how to create an elected chairmanship.
For example, the task force speculates that the wording of the straw poll question has a tendency to solicit a yes vote. Yet in the same paragraph, the committee admits it has no idea why the voters said yes.
Heres an idea: Maybe voters want to elect the person who leads their school board. Is that so complicated?
Columbia Countys legislative delegation doesnt think so. As a result, lawmakers are likely to set up a binding referendum for all voters on next years general election ballot. Trustees could continue to argue in favor of status quo, and keep second-guessing voters afterward.
Better still, they could step up and meet change just like county commissioners did - and learn that sometimes change is for the better.
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