If the quarter-cent sales tax issue on the May 6 ballot is truly, as supporters say, a referendum on our schools, then it’s fair to say the vote for the four at-large seats on the Lee County Board of Education on the same ballot is a referendum on board Chairman Bill Tatum and the rest of 2004’s “Bloc of Five.”
The bloc – of which only Tatum, Frank Thompson Sr. and John Bonardi remain – swept into office four years ago and immediately changed the board’s direction and approach, along the way bringing aboard a new superintendent (Dr. Jim McCormick) and creating new policies and strategies. This election cycle, Tatum is seeking a second term; Thompson won a two-year term in ’04, then sought and won a four-year term two years ago, and Bonardi decided earlier this year not to seek another term. (More on Bonardi later.)
The two remaining members of the bloc are gone, though they’re relatively recent departures: Mary Ellen Axner resigned last year for personal reasons and John Quiggle left earlier this year to accept an appointment to the county’s board of commissioners.
Its number has dwindled, but the bloc’s influence hasn’t. Since 2004, the board has overseen some significant highs (the opening of two new schools and renovations at a third, improved overall test scores, the system’s lowest dropout rate in nine years and a measured response to its challenges with a long-range plan for student growth and achievement) and the lows (curious ebbs in scores and graduation rates, the continued exodus of talented teachers and administrators, too much crime and drugs on campus and spending that has outpaced student growth) over the last term. It has also replaced Axner and Quiggle with two men (Dr. Lynn Smith and Shawn Williams) who have fit nicely within the parameters of the “bloc.”
That brings us back to May 6. On that day, voters will have the chance to select from six candidates: the aforementioned Tatum, Smith and Williams, and three first-time candidates, Mark Akinosho, Kimberly Lilley and Cameron Sharpe. Four will go in, meaning the board’s, and the bloc’s, balance could be tipped.
Pared down to its simplest terms, your vote in this election should hinge on whether this board has made progress. It has. Because we think the school system’s problems are being adequately addressed, and because there’s no compelling reason to believe the board is broken, The Herald’s editorial board endorses the three sitting board members, along with Mark Akinosho, for
Of the four, we’ll start with a candidate with whom we were most impressed: Mark Akinosho. Akinosho is far from the stereotypical Lee County candidate, but ironically ideally suited for this board: the son of educators, highly-educated himself and passionate about learning and preparing children for a global economy. In addition, as a pastor and small business owner, Akinosho is possessive of a unique perspective of problem-solving.
The amazing academic success of his own four children (two of whom have already
graduated from Lee County Schools) and his role in shepherding and tutoring youngsters in the community are just icing to his qualifications. We think he’ll add much to the board and to our schools.
Dr. Lynn Smith, like Akinosho, is also highly qualified to serve. In fact, he’s proven he can. In his short time on the board, Dr. Smith has demonstrated his capabilities with commitment and ready, honest answers to any questions. Better yet, when he’s given a question he can’t answer or presented with a challenge that requires thought, he digs in and goes to work and chooses the best course of action. His seamless transition onto the board has earned him a full four-year term.
W. P. “Bill” Tatum, the board’s current chairman, is harder to read than Smith, but perhaps that’s what four years of leading the school board will do to you. Tatum’s style has bristled some, as has his penchant for politics, but the truth of the matter is that the difficulty of working with the county’s board of commissioners has likely necessitated games of all kinds he never intended to have to play when he was first elected. You might not agree with some of the sometimes-abrasive Tatum’s tactics, but the results of his leadership of the board speak pretty plainly. He’s driven the board to succeed. That gives our children a better education.
Our final vote goes for Shawn Williams. Williams’ skills as a communicator, his experience as a school security officer and his willingness to throw himself into the job since his appointment in January earn him our final endorsement, one that we give with equal parts enthusiasm and caution.
We immensely liked Williams’ passion and the knowledge he’s gained about the system in such a short time. He’s also gained a vote of confidence from his fellow board members. We do worry, though, that while one-on-one he seems to be his own man, we’ve observed that Williams has shown an insecure streak in seeking approval and advice about his candidacy and his stance on various issues from such a diverse constituency. We hope those minor negatives – and his curious campaigning strategies, particularly in dealing with some of his fellow candidates (he did sign on failed city council candidate Lora Wright as his treasurer) – are just part of his learning curve.
The other two candidates, Kimberly Lilley and Cameron Sharpe, have demonstrated genuine concern during their respective quests for the board. Lilley was particularly vocal about a number of issues the board needed to address, but she lacked the knowledge, insight and educational proclivity of the other candidates. She is a good candidate, but four are better. Sharpe was immensely likeable but unsteady in responding to questions.
Current board member John Bonardi, who said in February he would not seek a second term to the board, has had a change of heart and has launched a write-in campaign. The newspaper’s editorial board didn’t meet with Bonardi, and we would not endorse him.