New Bibb BOE members hope to avoid current 5-3 board split on controversial issues

pramati@macon.comNovember 8, 2012 

For nearly a year, Bibb County school board votes have consistently fallen 5-3 on controversial issues. That vote tally has been so consistent that some residents have taken to referring to the factions as the “BOE 5” or the “BOE 3.”

In general, the “BOE 5” -- Tommy Barnes, Susan Middleton, Ella Carter, Tommy Hudson and Wanda West -- have supported Superintendent Romain Dallemand and his Macon Miracle strategic plan aimed at improving the school system.

On the flip side, the “BOE 3,” which include Gary Bechtel, Lynn Farmer and Sue Sipe, have voted against many of Dallemand’s initiatives.

But with newly elected board members Jason Downey, Lester Miller and Thelma Dillard replacing the term-limited Bechtel, Middleton and Barnes respectively, board watchers are wondering how the new members will change the board’s dynamics come January.

With eight members on the board, five votes are needed to approve any action item, so a tie vote means an item is defeated. Even a 4-3 majority during times when a board member is absent or abstains from a vote still means that measure won’t pass.

“With certain things like contracts or hires, they may not have a need to compromise,” Bechtel said. “That just means that motion doesn’t pass -- it’s done.”

Cautious optimism

New and returning board members are all cautiously optimistic that the new board will try to work together.

“I’m hopeful the new board members will take the time to get to know an issue before taking sides,” West said. “Hopefully, we can come together and do what’s best for the kids.”

West said she wants to see board members schedule a retreat soon after they’re sworn in to get training and to get to know each other better.

Other members expressed similar thoughts.

“I think every board has its own dynamic,” Farmer said. “I don’t know (about the new board) until we start working together. I hope we can find that common ground where we work together.”

Hudson said he sees the current split as a difference in ideologies among board members.

“There are five of us that are on the same page,” he said. “Then there are three who are working against the superintendent. ... (Dallemand) has gotten notoriety for his work. We’re doing the right things -- the best is yet to come. ... We need to move forward. It’s bad for the children while people are playing politics.”

Newcomers Miller and Downey (attempts to reach Dillard were unsuccessful) said if there are more 4-4 splits, at least it means the board members would be forced to come up with compromises to get anything accomplished.

“I like to think that there will be compromise on a lot of issues,” Downey said. “Potentially, there could be a lot of 4-4 splits. I don’t foresee a lot of 5-3 (splits). I hope we’ll see a lot more compromises on the issues. ... If there’s gridlock, if it gets to 4-4, I’d like to think we’d try to find a way to work together. But we’ve got a lot of new faces. There’s no way to really know yet.”

Farmer, a 10-year board veteran, said members always have managed to come up with compromises when the vote results in a tie.

However, Bechtel said there haven’t been many of those splits lately.

“We haven’t had any 4-4 votes,” he said. “They’ve all been 5-3, with the same three in the minority all the time. There’s never been an effort to compromise, because there’s never been any need to.”

Looming question

One big question is which board will decide on whether Dallemand’s contract is renewed and/or renegotiated. Will the current board take up that issue, or will that fall to the incoming board in 2013?

Miller, for one, said he thinks it should be the new board, because that’s the board that will be working with Dallemand in the future. Therefore, he said, the incoming board should make any contract decisions.

“I think the new board has to have input,” he said. “You’re binding the new board to a contract it didn’t have any say-so in. It doesn’t seem fair. Each of (the newly elected members) have about 25,000 people in their district, and they’re not going to have a say.”

Sipe said when she and Carter were first elected four years ago, they had no say in the contract that had been negotiated for then-Superintendent Sharon Patterson. While Sipe, an incumbent, would have input into Dallemand’s contract whether it was negotiated by the sitting or incoming board, she also thinks any decisions should be left to the new board.

Hudson, another incumbent, takes the opposite tack. He noted that the current board has been involved with Dallemand’s formal evaluation. Hudson said that board should decide whether to extend the superintendent’s contract.

“The contract is based on the evaluation, so they run hand in hand,” he said. “What’s the purpose of waiting around? We had a contract with (Patterson) that we inherited, so why change (the process) now? Some people would like to change the rules in the middle of the game.”

Bechtel said he expects to see the contract issue on an agenda before the end of the calendar year.

“I have reason to believe ... they’ll force this board into a vote,” said Bechtel, who said he raised a similar objection when the former board made its decision about Patterson’s contract. “I was against (that board) doing it. It didn’t allow the two new members (Carter and Sipe) to participate in those discussions, and they were going to have to serve with the superintendent.”

Because contract negotiations are a personnel matter, they are discussed in closed session, and the three members-elect aren’t allowed to participate in those sessions until they are sworn in.

Other issues

Another issue the new board will have to work out is the board’s role in governing. Many of the 5-3 splits over the past several months have been how much input the board should have over Dallemand and his staff.

West said she thinks the board has tried to impose itself too much on Dallemand’s duties, overstepping its bounds.

“What we need to do as a board is to make sure we’re in lock-step and doing what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “There’s a thin line between board governance and administration. What we need to do is to agree on (the school system’s priorities) and then let the superintendent and his staff do their work, and then evaluate them.”

But Farmer said that while she agrees with West in principle, they may differ on the definition of “governance.”

“We should have an appropriate relationship with the superintendent,” Farmer said. “It needs more partnership and open communication. But there is partnership in governance. ... The board has a responsibility to provide direction and expectations.”

Almost all the current and future board members interviewed for this story agreed that discipline and school safety are the most important priorities once the new board is sworn into office.

“We need to look at our policies regarding safety and make sure they are being followed correctly,” Miller said. “There needs to be a lot more open communication. We need to get parents more involved with their schools. When you get parents more involved for the right reasons, some of those other problems probably will disappear.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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