Tom Walmer had proud moments, faced challenges on Houston school board

Walmer had proud moments, faced challenges on Houston school board

jmink@macon.comFebruary 18, 2013 

PERRY -- Tom Walmer was a fixture in Houston County schools long before he sat at the center of the board of education, a gavel in his hand.

Even before he took the chairman spot, one of his regular seats was in the bleachers at Northside High School band performances. As president of the band booster club and statistics keeper for the football team, Walmer was involved with the school system for years before running for the school board.

After just entering his fifth year as board chairman -- and 11 years on the school board -- Walmer recently resigned from the board after being laid off from his job at Flint Appliance Center, which is closing. He said his resignation was in the best interest of his family, and he is not sure another employer would allow him the time to serve on the board, he said.

It was an emotional moment when he announced his resignation during the school board retreat Feb. 9. Several school board members choked up as they took in the news, and Walmer himself fought tears. As they bid farewell over the next few days, school officials praised Walmer’s leadership, calling him one of the best school board members they had ever worked with.

“I didn’t know whether I was supposed to scream or throw up or laugh or cry,” board member Helen Hughes said about the moment she learned of Walmer’s resignation. “So we just decided we would hold on.”

Board members are accepting résumés from people who live in Post 1, which represents Northside High, Thomson Middle and several elementary schools. They will vote on the new board member March 12, and board member Marianne Melnick has become chairwoman.

As he wrapped up his last school board meeting Tuesday, Walmer reflected on more than a decade of proud moments and challenges.

“I feel like everyone has a duty to be involved in the community,” he said. “Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and I hope I’ve done everything I can to be an asset.”

11 years on the school board

Walmer’s school board journey began when a school board member resigned. At that time, Walmer already was working with local youth programs -- in addition to his work at Northside, he has been a longtime Little League volunteer. That’s when school personnel, including former Superintendent Danny Carpenter, encouraged Walmer to apply for the vacant position.

Walmer joined the board in the midst of turmoil and squabbles between other board members.

“Everybody on the board didn’t necessarily get along with each other the way we do today,” he said. “That was a very difficult time, especially as a new board member.”

Walmer faced other challenges when the Legislature began cutting the education budget, forcing the board to carry out furloughs and cut funding from some programs.

“When you start affecting your people, you can’t take those decisions lightly,” he said.

And one of the biggest challenges also spurred the most parent involvement: high school rezoning. Walmer recalls hundreds of people packing the board meetings. During that time, he would stay up hours into the night, agonizing over the decision.

“That’s a very trying time,” he said, adding he had to make the best decision for the community and the school system as a whole. “Was everybody happy with the outcome? No.”

But one of the first lessons he learned was to make decisions in the best interest of the entire school system, not just the district he represented.

“It’s really easy for people to say I’m a Northside person,” Walmer said, referencing his district. “But the board of education is very unique. While that district is represented by us, we have to make decisions based on what’s best for the entire school system. ... When I made my decisions, I looked at the big picture.”

In fact, after watching former chairmen, Walmer learned to study issues before making a decision, he said. It’s one attribute that Walmer has consistently been praised for.

“In 30-plus years, I’ve never been around a better board member,” Houston County School Superintendent Robin Hines said. “I’ve never seen anybody that’s made decisions and studied the way Tom has done.”

Running for board chairman was a natural move for Walmer. As a Boy Scout, he went on to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank. He earned the highest position in ROTC.

“You want to be the best you can,” he said. “If I could be chair, that was what I wanted to do.”

Achieving that top position is just one of many highlights for Walmer. Recognizing students for their achievements and watching their performances during board meetings have been some of the best moments, he said.

Walmer got one last chance Feb. 12 to complete one of his favorite tasks when the board recognized high school students who made high scores on the Advanced Placement exam. Later in the meeting, Hines presented Walmer with a plaque, which had a gavel mounted on it.

After reviewing the agenda and taking motions to adjourn, Walmer knocked the gavel for the last time.

“It’s been a fun ride,” he said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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