Forty years ago, Columbia County's first elected board of education took office and dealt with challenges that continue to plague school officials today.
In 1968, Columbia County voters elected their own school board for the first time. Those elected -- Lamar Walter, Guy Fleming Sr., Leon Zeigler, J.M. Price Jr. and current state Sen. Bill Jackson -- were sworn in on Jan. 7, 1969.
Prior to that election, school board members were appointed by a county grand jury.
At that time, the state constitution called for the appointment of school board members by a grand jury and the election of a superintendent, but counties could choose to elect their own board if they passed a referendum to change that process, said former county superintendent Don Thornhill.
"We had all kinds of configurations in the state," said Thornhill, who became an assistant superintendent during the first term of the first elected school board. "We had appointed boards and elected superintendents. We had elected boards and appointed superintendents. We had elected boards and elected superintendents, which is what we became in 1969."
It wasn't until the 1990s that the state constitution was changed to elect school boards and appoint superintendents, Thornhill said.
Grand jury appointment was a poor method for selecting a school board, Jackson said.
"The school board is probably the most important political office there is, and it should be unpolitical," he said. "To go to the people and let them decide who is on it is a better system than letting just a few people decide."
Walter resigned from the board after about a year to take a job in Savannah,Ga., Thornhill said. Of the remaining original board members, only Jackson and Leon Zeigler are still alive.
The accomplishments of the first elected board and Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard included the construction of several elementary schools, adding air-conditioning to schools and building a board of education office in Appling, Jackson said.
Prior to the construction of a new board office, the officials met in a small room of the Appling courthouse.
Thornhill said officials had to engage in some creative financing to build that board office.
The school system had received a federal grant of about $100,000, but the funds could be used only on schools.
Officials spent it on additions to elementary schools, but were then compensated for their expense through a state program, which had fewer restrictions on how the money could be used.
Those state funds were then used to build the board of education office.
"Mr. Blanchard knew his way around, and it was perfectly legal," Thornhill said.
Still, the funding wasn't enough to complete the structure, so board members turned to their constituents.
"I can remember people in the community hung the paneling on the walls and the tile for the floors was given to us," Jackson said. "It didn't cost Columbia County a quarter."
The school board office opened in 1971 and served as the system's headquarters until a new administration building was completed on Hereford Farm Road in 2006.
Nationally, the biggest school-related issue at the time was the integration of schools. However, Columbia County school officials never had to face the resistance many other school systems endured.
"I think we had one of the smoothest transitions that had ever been done," Jackson recalled. "It was a classic example of how people believing in each other and working together can do things that was so different for that time, and do it successfully. Blacks and whites worked together and didn't have a moment's trouble."
School officials can still relate to what Jackson said was the most difficult challenge the first board faced -- a lack of funds.
"We couldn't have opened the school doors unless we raised the taxes six mills, which in those days was death," Jackson said. "Our friends were cussing us out on the street."
Despite the difficulties, Jackson said he truly relishes his first foray into public service, and that he learned the importance of serving the people.
"I enjoyed those four years as much as anything I've ever done in my 40-year career," he said. "We felt like we were really accomplishing something good and important."
A story in the Sunday edition of The Columbia County News-Times incorrectly listed a former Columbia County school board member as deceased. Leon Zeigler is alive and resides in Martinez. The News-Times regrets the error.
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