Houston school board District 7 post attracts 5 candidates

alopez@macon.comApril 23, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- The race comprises a substitute teacher, an Air Force veteran, a retired assistant principal, a general contractor and a Robins Air Force Base accountant.

Five candidates are running for the Houston County school board District 7 at-large seat, which became available after board member Dave McMahan resigned in February.

In the crowded field, it may be difficult for one candidate to receive more than 50 percent of the vote required to win the May 20 special election and avoid a runoff.

Four of the candidates -- Tannya Duncan, Bryan Upshaw, Douglas Wechsler and Andy Rodriguez -- have been confirmed to speak at a 4 p.m. candidate forum hosted by the Houston Democrats on Saturday at the Wellston Center on Maple Street in Warner Robins. Candidate Robbin Jackson has not yet been confirmed for the event.

The school board position pays $300 per month, plus $50 for attending called meetings beyond the monthly work session and the monthly meeting.

Longtime educator

Before she retired last year, Duncan, 57, greeted parents and children every morning as the assistant principal of Lake Joy Primary.

“I gave out hugs every day,” she said.

Duncan interacted with the students at her school by manning the halls, but she also ensured their safety. Because she knew everybody’s name, she could pick out whether people on the school’s grounds belonged, she said

Duncan worked in public education for 35 years, spending 22 of them in the classroom.

“I am running for the school board because I think it’s an opportunity for me to use my experience.”

Her daughter is a special education student, so Duncan is passionate about helping students with special needs. She said she helps other special education parents navigate their child’s individualized education program and understand their rights.

“Experience makes a difference,” Duncan said, “and I think parents in our district want someone on the board who can articulate and understand what teachers are going through, what students need in the classroom.”

The substitute teacher

Jackson, 60, said if elected to the school board, he would work to make the Houston County school system even better by making sure qualified teachers aren’t shut out of positions.

“I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through as far as going to college, getting a master’s degree and not being able to be hired in the Houston County school system,” he said.

He has worked as a substitute teacher in the district for more than 38 years and said he has been actively seeking a permanent position for years.

“I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to teach if they want to teach,” Jackson said.

A graduate of Fort Valley State University, Jackson self-published a workbook last year aimed at helping students master writing and arithmetic.

“I do believe I can make a difference,” Jackson said. “I’ve been to every school, and I know what’s going on in each one of them.”

A master gardener

Since retiring after 32 years of service in the Air Force, Rodriguez, 60, has helped develop Junior Master Gardener after-school programs at several Houston schools. He sometimes even provides volunteer landscaping to schools. He also provides free disability compensation counseling classes to other veterans.

“People in the county know who I am,” he said. “They know I’m going to show up.”

Rodriguez lost to Dave McMahan in the 2012 election for District 7 but garnered more than 2,000 votes.

His platform includes fiscal responsibility, strong communication between the system and the community, and the promotion of a wellness culture. Two of his children graduated from Houston County high schools, and he said he wants to make sure the district maintains its level of excellence. His wife is a special education teacher in the system.

“I‘m running for the board because I can,” Rodriguez said, “because I have the skills, because I have the background and experience in education.”

Giving back

With one child at Eagle Springs Elementary School and the other at Thomson Middle School, Upshaw, 41, said he has a vested interest in the success of Houston County schools.

“I just want to give back and help as much as I can,” Upshaw said.

He sees the school board position as vital to the community, he said, because the school district’s reputation attracts business investment, and he wants to make sure that continues to grow.

And because he has worked as a general contractor and roofer for 10 years, he said he will be able to provide insight when the school board is tasked with making decisions on construction projects.

As someone without experience in the politics of education, Upshaw said his fresh perspective is an asset.

“I have the desire, and I’ve got Houston County at heart,” Upshaw said, “and I think I can look at problems with an open mind and try to find the best solutions.”

Accounting and technology

Wechsler, 44, works as an accountant at Robins Air Force Base and helps Southside Baptist Church -- a 3,000 person congregation -- as its chief financial officer.

He said if he is elected to the school board his expertise in finance and accounting will allow him to provide oversight to how the school district’s budget is used “and get the best bang for our bucks.”

Wechsler has reviewed the district’s monthly financial statements and said he sees no cause for concern, but he’d like to dig deeper.

He is tied to Houston County through his 26-year career at the base, his work at his church, rental property investments and through his child who attends school here.

A father of a Veterans High School freshman, he said one of his goals on the board will be to make sure students have access to the technology that will help them succeed, mentioning digital books, tablets and social media.

“I understand where the future is going, and we need to stay ahead of it,” he said.

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 478-256-9751.

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