Originally created 10/31/00

School board candidates clash



The Columbia County school board race in District 3 could come down to the differences between Harlem and Grovetown and how schools in those two areas are served.

On one side, there is Roxanne Whitaker, a Harlem native and daughter of the city's mayor. Mrs. Whitaker has served the district for the past four years and wants to continue for a second term. Challenging her is Grovetown resident Rosa Lee Owens - backed by the mayor of Grovetown. A retired schoolteacher, Mrs. Owens has based her campaign on what she sees as a void for Grovetown representation in local government.

Mrs. Whitaker, however, said she believes she has represented all of District 3 well during the past four years.

District 3 covers Harlem, Grovetown and other areas south of Interstate 20. The District 2, District 3 and District 5 nonpartisan school board seats will be up for grabs Nov. 7. School board members are elected by district, and only the District 2 seat is without opposition.

"I think I have been pushy when it comes to improving the conditions in District 3," Mrs. Whitaker said. "Harlem High School got eight rooms and three science labs. Grovetown Elementary received a 10-room addition. Just recently, I have pushed to increase some of the buses in that area because we did have some overcrowding of buses. And we're still working on Grovetown Middle."

The two candidates agree on what the needs are in District 3 - improved academic scores and better facilities. But they part ways on how much has been done in the past for the district and how best to meet future needs.

Mrs. Owens has made the new middle school in Grovetown the crux of her campaign, speaking publicly every chance she gets - even at events not intended for school board campaigning - about the overcrowding at Harlem Middle and how Grovetown pupils need their own schools. While plans are under way for a Grovetown middle school and land has been donated, the challenger said the city has heard the promises before.

"Every time I go to the school board, Grovetown's next," Mrs. Owens said. "I don't want next. I want to see brick and mortar."

She has also made test scores for schools in District 3 an issue by comparing scores for schools in the district to others in the school system.

"The rest of the county is great, and all of us are proud, but it disturbs me immensely when I look at the academic scores for District 3," Mrs. Owens said. "I just think we don't have enough intellectual stimulation and motivation and facilities in this area. When I observe the other side of the county, there just seems to be more and more available to them."

While Mrs. Owens advocates opening a magnet school in Grovetown for high-achieving pupils as a way to improve the district and the school system overall, Mrs. Whitaker disagrees with the concept. A magnet school, she said, could drain resources from current schools and lower expectations for those schools by removing high-performing students.

Instead, the incumbent wants improvements to the school system's vocational programs for students who might not be on a college-prep track but need viable job skills.

Mrs. Whitaker bristles at her opponent's criticism of District 3 test scores, saying that the schools have made strides during the years and that test scores don't show the whole picture of a school's performance.

And, the incumbent said, even though they are elected by district, school board members have to be realistic and serve the school system as a whole in addition to by district.

"No matter how hard you push, you have to do what's right for everybody involved," Mrs. Whitaker said.

The candidates

Roxanne Whitaker

Age: 39

Residence: Harlem

Occupation: Nurse

Education: Graduated from Harlem High School in 1979, attended Georgia Southern University and received nursing degree from Augusta College

Political experience: Four years as District 3 representative on Columbia County Board of Education, past two years as vice chairman

Family:Husband, Mark; three children

Rosa Lee Owens

Age: 72

Residence: Grovetown

Occupation: Retired school teacher

Education: Attended University of Georgia for one year, graduated from Augusta College in 1972 with bachelor's degree in education

Political experience: None

Family: Widowed, two daughters; one son who is deceased

Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.