Both candidates say student achievement, management of a crippled budget and improving graduation rates are top priorities in local education.
The way each approaches the challenges, though, is what sets them apart and gives voters a choice between two different candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot. Incumbent Marion Barnes said his 12 years on the board and knowledge of the issues gives him an upper hand in the race. His challenger, Lucien Williams, the owner of Williams Management accounting and income tax business, said his fresh set of eyes and financial background can bring a welcomed change to the board.
“I’ve watched these schools go down for a decade,” Williams said. “It’s got to improve at some point ... I think new leadership, new perspective can help.”
Barnes, 78, was elected to the Board in 2000 after more than 30 years in education. He taught at various schools in Augusta before serving as the principal of T.W. Josey Comprehensive High School for 18 years.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Barnes, who chose a career in education after growing up in poverty and seeing adults around him who couldn’t read or write.
In his time on the board, Barnes has worked with three superintendents and dealt with $113 million in state funding cuts over the last 10 years.
Barnes said he has played a role in hiring effective teachers and finding federal funds to support faculty and students. Going forward, Barnes said he’d like one more term to oversee construction projects that are a result of the special purpose local option sales tax passed during his tenure.
He also wants to help graduation rates by continuing to ensure teachers get training to make their instruction effective.
“I don’t have a problem with change,” Barnes said of his challenger. “But in losing (state funding) this year, I’m in a better position to deal with that than a newcomer. We have to do more with less, and I don’t have to learn how to do that.”
Like Barnes, Williams, 57, was born and raised in Augusta. He went to the University of Wyoming to study history but returned to Augusta after graduation and opened his tax business.
After he sent one of his sons to Academy of Richmond County and the other to the private Augusta Preparatory Day School, Williams realized “by far, the one that went to Prep got a better education.”
Williams saw an injustice with that and has since followed public education.
He is now walking neighborhoods and setting up signs to sell his ideas to the public.
He is learning how to speak in front of crowds and to convince people his first stint as an elected official would help the community.
Williams said the change he has planned won’t happen overnight. Over the course of his term, he’d like to advocate for more magnet and vocational programs.
He said the school system is responsible for producing graduates that will contribute to the local economy and industry. That can be done by making sure test scores and student achievement improve with effective teachers and adequate resources.
Williams would also address chronic absenteeism and the challenges in single-parent homes with community outreach.
Like Barnes, Williams said he wants to work with the financial department to reduce furlough days and make sure transportation runs smoothly.
Barnes said he would be willing to balance the budget by raising taxes as a last resort, but Williams said he’d like to look at cutting waste and selling surplus district properties instead.
If he wins, Barnes said this would be his final term on the board, and he wants to leave the system stable and secure. Williams said he is hoping to serve two terms to accomplish his goals.
If not elected this time, Williams said he will run again with bigger and better plans for the district.
“My interest will not go away because these things are important,” Williams said.