Allegations of racism at recent BOE meeting

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Displeased citizens and board members made for a contentious meeting of the Henry County Board of Education Monday night, with several members of the audience injecting race into the discussion, according to reports.

While the school board does not broadcast its meetings like the Board of Commissioners or the McDonough and Stockbridge city councils, the district’s communications staff posts regular real-time updates on its Facebook page. This typically leads to dozens of comments on that thread as well as other Facebook pages, and this latest meeting was no exception. Information in this story is taken from the Board of Education’s official Facebook page.

It began with two separate votes to add technology to the agenda, spurred by board members Donna McBride and Annette Edwards. The first motion failed 2-3, and when they tried to ask questions about technology they were told by superintendent Rodney Bowler that questions cannot be asked regarding items not on the agenda. A second motion was made and it also failed by the same vote.

Dozens of issues in the past year have resulted in 3-2 votes, with Edwards and McBride on one side and the three remaining board members — Holly Cobb, Josh Hinton and Pam Nutt — on the other.

The first person to speak in public participation was Vivian Thomas from the NAACP, who read a letter chastising the board and claiming racism, poor leadership and incompetency. These conclusions were drawn from the recent search for a new superintendent to replace the retiring Bowler. Thomas made numerous comments about dirty money, racism and nepotism along with other opinions.

Singling out Cobb and Nutt, she demanded their resignations, claiming there was a “lynching” of Timothy Gadson, the recent superintendent candidate, and that Cobb “acted on a lie” when voting against Gadson and citing his removal of the immorality clause in his proposed contract.

Gadson was the sole finalist last month for the superintendent position, but the board withdrew its offer when Gadson’s contract demands were revealed to be far above what had been paid to any superintendent in the past. Copies of the board’s contract offer as well as Gadson’s counteroffer were released to the Times and other media outlets and also made public. A previous board meeting unveiled specific details of correspondence between Gadson’s attorney and the school board’s attorneys after citizens alleged impropriety.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones spoke next and said he was dismayed at the board’s actions on the Gadson issue. He said he did not want to appear at this meeting but did so when board members declined to meet with him after the last search was concluded. He said he has not received adequate information in response to his requests and is concerned about “dysfunction” on the board. Jones also noted that he saw race playing a part in the process. He continued speaking beyond the stated time limit and had to be told twice that his time was up.

The next speaker also suggested that prejudice or discrimination or racism led to Gadson not getting the job. She also touched on other issues that she found disheartening and said that this meeting was further evidence of the need to live-stream each meeting.

During the next portion of the meeting, assistant superintendent Jeff Allie’s regular financial report, a number of questions were asked by board members about issues including air conditioning for middle schools, distribution of technology funds, schools using 1:1 technology, payroll procedures, and disposition of old or outdated technology. Nearly all of the questions were asked by Edwards or McBride.

During Bowler’s portion of the agenda, several recommendations were approved unanimously with little or no discussion. Edwards made one point when asking about sick leave policies for salaried employees, saying that incorrect information about Gadson’s salary demands and contract was released last month and she would like to see accurate information released in the future. The report of the meeting did not specify what the incorrect information was or whether Edwards herself said what it was.

The final item of business for the night was the standard monthly approval of field trip and fundraising requests. The vote was 3-1 with Edwards against and McBride abstaining.

Edwards inquired about Southern Belle Farm, which is a regular field trip destination by local schools every year. She asked what it is and who owns it. A number of citizens questioned after the meeting why Edwards would be unaware of the facility, which has been profiled on the front page of USA Today and in several television news programs in recent years.

After it was made clear in the meeting what nearly everyone already knew, which is that Southern Belle Farm is owned by the Carter family, Edwards and McBride asked about possible conflict of interest since Holly Carter Cobb is a member of that family. Cobb stated that she receives no money from any school business and encouraged anyone interested in the issue to check.

Hinton then asked if it was not a conflict of interest for a sitting Board of Education member “to be married to the president of an organization that continually attacks the school system.” Hinton’s not-so-subtle reference was to Edwards and her husband, Eugene Edwards, who is president of the Henry County branch of the NAACP.

According to the Facebook report, Eugene Edwards stood up in the crowd to object and challenge Hinton but Annette Edwards “stated she would take care of it.” At that point Nutt adjourned the meeting.