ALBANY, Ga. -- In light of some Dougherty County Board of Education members trying to elude media members after meetings and not returning phone calls in recent months, candidates running for the District 2 and District 6 seats each said they would be accessible to the media if they were elected.
School Board hopefuls Sherrell Byrd, Donnie Smith, Darrel Ealum and Dean Phinazee presented their platforms to an audience of about 30-40 people during the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce's Candidates' Forum Thursday afternoon at the Albany Welcome Center.
Byrd and Smith are each running for the District 2 seat held since 2000 by Milton Griffin, who called event organizers and said he couldn't attend. Byrd is running in the July 20 Democratic Primary against Griffin, and Smith is the sole Republican in the race, thus guaranteeing her place against either Byrd or Griffin in the Nov. 2 general election.
Byrd has two young children and is a Westover graduate whose mother taught for 15 years in the DCSS. Smith has three grown children and has lived in Albany for 20 years.
Ealum and Phinazee are competing for retiring board member Michael Windom's District 6 seat, which he's held since 1995. Ealum, a former college associate professor, has five grown children who are either enrolled in college or are graduates. Phinazee is a retired 35-year educator with 23 of those years spent in the DCSS.
Candidates were allotted two minutes for their opening and closing remarks and to answer three questions from a panel of print and television media representatives. Each candidate was asked the same questions.
After Smith gave opening remarks about herself, Albany Journal Publisher Kevin Hogencamp asked the first question.
"If you were on the School Board when Anita Williams-Brown voted her business associate to be superintendent (Joshua Murfree), and as a result one of your fellow board members made a motion to censure her for that breach of ethics and to report her to the State Ethics Commission would you vote yes? Why or why not?"
"I would've voted yes because I follow the rules," said Smith, who didn't have a microphone until one was found later. "We're breaking rules now, not education-wise, but as far as ethics."
"I believe as school board members, we need to be accessible and transparent," Byrd answered when asked the same question. "If I was on the board, I would've stood behind the board on what they had decided to do."
Smith and Byrd were also asked by WFXL-TV's James Kennedy about the direction the school board has taken and what they would do differently.
"We can't let our community fall apart," Smith said. "We need to train our children right ... our children are being allowed to run wild. We're just in a mess across the whole United States because our schools are falling apart."
"I believe our board needs to be more transparent and accessible to the community. If they were more transparent and accessible, we would've eliminated a lot of the problems," Byrd said. "I would've gone out and told people what was going on."
Charles McNeil of The Southwest Georgian asked if the Dougherty County School System had adequate funding. The DCSS recently passed a $114.5 million general fund budget for Fiscal Year 2011.
"I think we're adequately funded," Smith said. "There's a lot of waste in the schools. We need teachers, principals and, God forbid, we need police (officers) because of the state society is in now. You could see they were over budget because they could just drop $6 million to just a few thousand dollars. What we need them to do is to teach our children because right now we have too many teachers working in the system that only (do the job because they) want the summers off."
"I agree with Mrs. Smith that we are adequately funded," Byrd said. "It's not about the money, it's how it's spent. We need to roll up our sleeves. ... We need to get our community more involved and get more of our business partners involved. We have to make sure we make use of all the resources we have."
Ealum and Phinazee were asked by Albany Herald Editor Jim Hendricks how they would get more students' parents involved in their children's education.
"I believe we've got to reach out and do everything we can to get parents involved," Ealum said.
"We have to offer parents some incentive to want to come to the schools," Phinazee said. "I think our schools can be used in the afternoon for our parents to learn."
WALB-TV reporter Christian Jennings asked if Ealum and Phinazee would be available to media outlets after they were elected.
"I am accountable and I will return your call," said Ealum, who told the audience his phone number.
"The people elect us to this position, and we should be available," Phinazee said. "We need to be available as much as possible for the people. We need to be transparent. If the media asks me a question, I don't see me running from the media."
In his closing remarks, Phinazee said he wants to see more technology in the classroom. In his final comments, Ealum said he had visited 3,500 of the 4,000 registered voter households in District 6.
Besides community members, the Chamber of Commerce's Candidates' Forum also attracted elected officials such as School Board members David Maschke and Windom, state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, state Rep. Winfred Dukes and Karen Kemp, who's running against Dukes for his District 150 seat in November.
"I think we have some excellent people running for public office," Dukes said after the forum. "The School Board and community will be made better because these people have offered themselves to public service. We've got a group of hardworking people."
Kemp agreed with Dukes' assessment.
"I'm really pleased to see committed people offering themselves to public service," she said. "I think it's a very positive thing to see people who have never run for office before bring new ideas to our community in a time when new ideas are desperately needed."