Roxanne Whitaker was elected chairman of the Columbia County Board of Education on Monday morning, her second turn as chairman in her eight years on the board.
Whitaker replaces Wayne Bridges as chairman.
For the second year in a row, retired middle-school social studies teacher Mildred Blackburn was named vice-chairman.
The biggest issue for the school board this year?
"Find money," said Whitaker, who represents District 3, an area of the county that includes Harlem and Grovetown.
"We've got a lot of things we need to fund that the state is not going to pay for," she said.
Implementation of an elementary foreign-language program also will be a leading project this year, said Whitaker, a surgical nurse who was chairman in 2002 and has served two terms as vice-chairman of the five-member board.
Board member Lee Muns opposed both officers' appointments. He was the lone vote against both nominations.
Trustees elected officers in a called meeting Monday morning, where monthly meeting times were established and a board attorney was appointed.
Whitaker may be the last board-appointed chairman, because local legislators are expected to place a referendum on the November ballot that will allow voters to decide if they want to elect their school board chairman.
The board will continue to meet at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month, alternating locations between the Columbia County Government Complex and the board office in Appling. William Fleming was retained as the board's attorney.
Board member Regina Buccafusco also suggested that the board hold five town meetings during the year in each district, allowing residents to speak openly to the board. During meetings, each speaker is allowed only three minutes to address the board, and the board is not obligated to respond.
"That way, we are not just reacting to situations in the county, we are pro-active," Buccafusco said.
The board likely will vote on Buccafusco's proposal at its next meeting Jan. 13. Muns also suggested that the board set aside a day to hear reports from each of the school councils, "to hear areas of concern at each school," he said.
"If we really want to hear about what's going on in our schools, we need to hear from them," Muns said.
Also at the meeting, School Superintendent Tommy Price said the system has chalked up legal fees totally about $31,000 during the year. The largest bill, $16,893, was from The Weatherley Firm of Atlanta to defend cases relating to special education, Price said. Price said the cases usually stem from parents wanting additional services for their children.
Fleming, who bills the system at a rate of $90 an hour for meetings and $115 for special assignments, billed the school system $6,945 last year. Fleming is working with Augusta attorney Jack Long to defend the system in a federal suit, brought by the bus driver's union last year, that claims the school system is not paying drivers for all the time they work.
The school system also has been charged $7,500 from an attorney representing Grovetown Middle School Principal Carolyn Fries, the defendant in a civil suit brought by a bus driver who says she was assaulted by the principal.
In response to that case, which is ongoing, the board also voted to set at cap of $7,500 and require bimonthly reports from legal council.
"I think it makes them accountable, makes them justify the amount of spending," Muns said. "We agreed to pay for (Fries') council, yet it's up to $7,500, and we don't know where it stands."
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