Johnson seeks to unseat Sipe from Bibb school board in primary

An insurance agent is challenging incumbent Susan Sipe for the Bibb County Board of Education District 3 seat during the Aug. 21 Democratic primary.

Merritt Johnson, 36, faces off against Sipe, 60, a system administrator at Eastside Lumber Co. The winner of that race will move on to challenge Angela P. Freeman, a 41-year-old Republican who works as a behavior specialist, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Johnson, a native of Macon, said he has spent most of his life participating in various community projects.

“I heard the voice of the people. They were asking for a change,” he said.

Sipe, who decided to run for a school board seat four years ago when her granddaughter started kindergarten, said she has a nearly perfect attendance at board meetings, and she said she has spent almost 400 hours in board meetings and training sessions.

“My work is not done,” she said. “I have invested four years of my time to work for the children of the school system, and there is more to be done.”

Both candidates said they’re running for office to put the focus back on Bibb County’s students.

“I think the board ... should do whatever it takes to improve the current situation of our school system,” Johnson said.

Sipe said also said school board meetings have focused on politics and not on making things better for the children, saying lagging End-of-Course Test scores should have been discussed at a recent meeting but were not.

Sipe said she supports some initiatives in the Macon Miracle strategic plan, including the use of student data to address problem areas immediately, as well as math and reading interventions, especially for young students.

However, she said she didn’t support the Macon Miracle at first, because the initial plan didn’t include implementation costs. Even now, school leaders need to determine their priorities in the plan in the coming years, she said, pointing out that the system is using millions from its reserves to balance the fiscal 2013 budget.

“We cannot continue to take $8 million out of the reserve fund every year,” she said. “Decisions are going to have to be made.” Sipe said she also is committed to holding the superintendent and other leaders accountable in matters, including the annual budget process.

“I believe it’s necessary for a school board member to stand up and ask questions and monitor the work of the superintendent and the administrators,” she said.

Sipe also expressed concern about discipline, the loss of qualified teachers and the delay in building a new Heard Elementary School, among a list of projects to be funded with the current education penny sales tax.

Johnson said one of the most important issues facing the school system is classroom safety, a concern for many parents that ties into a larger trend of violence among local youth.

“They want to make sure when they send their kids off to school, they’re going to come home safe,” Johnson said.

The students Johnson has mentored have raised issues about being in class with disruptive students and using textbooks that are in bad shape.

Johnson said school leaders need to be financially responsible and make classroom spending and school safety the school system’s funding priorities.

“You definitely can’t put a price tag on the safety of our kids, but after that, we need to do everything possible in a financial manner to give teachers (the) resources to do their job,” Johnson said.

Making sure students have a 21st century curriculum and allowing teachers to discipline students and focus on instruction are among Johnson’s other major issues.

“I’m going to work for the community,” he said. “I’m going to work for the people of Macon, Georgia.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331.