Originally created 11/04/04

Chairman election supported in referendum



When the Georgia Legislature convenes in January, a local state representative intends to introduce a bill to create an at-large elected school board chairman in Columbia County.

Voters in Tuesday's general election overwhelmingly supported a nonbinding referendum advocating the creation of an at-large elected chairman. The measure passed 41,106 to 4,563 for 90 percent of the vote.

"I think that's an overwhelming mandate," state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, said Wednesday. "The people want it."

Mr. Harbin said the Columbia County legislative delegation will meet with school board members and the public during the next two months before authoring a bill for Congress.

"We'll move it forward and, hopefully, introduce a bill during this next session that starts in January and have an election on tap for 2006," he said.

The current board chairman is elected by fellow board members.

The idea of a countywide elected chairman was first presented to voters on a 2002 Republican primary ballot. It passed by more than 80 percent. Opponents of the idea said the vote didn't truly represent the entire county population, so legislators held off on taking action until Tuesday's vote.

Regardless of the tremendous voter support, newly re-elected school board member Wayne Bridges still opposes electing a chairman.

"I still don't agree with the idea for our county," Mr. Bridges said. "Just because we had 90 percent say yes, I'm not going to change my personal feelings about that."

An elected school board chairman will invite too much politics into board races and cause redistricting woes and won't hold any more voting power than district-elected board members, Mr. Bridges said.

"I still believe that a school board member, while representing their district, has to make sure the school system as a whole is working," he said. "That means doing what's right for your system. I feel like every district has five representatives on that board."

Mr. Harbin said he "doesn't foresee a problem" instituting the way school board chairs are elected in the county. The Columbia County Commission already established a model for the change when it switched to a countywide elected chairman in 2002, which has proved to be very popular, he said.

"All we're changing is how our chairman is elected," Mr. Harbin said. "We're not changing their powers. It'll give everybody in the county two people representing them on our school board. More importantly, it gives you a voice on the board that has to listen to the entire county. I think that's important."

Despite his objections, the numbers are too overwhelming to ignore, Mr. Bridges said.

"I think we have to follow through with this, but I want our legislators to study this carefully," he said.

Resigning school board member Lee Muns, a longtime proponent of the at-large elected chairman, said he, too, will work with the legislative delegation on the issue for the remainder of his term, which ends in December.

"(The public wants) to see strong leadership," he said. "They don't have the opportunity to vote for superintendent of schools, so they want to have the opportunity to vote for that person that's going to be the leader of the board."

Reach Donnie Fetter at 868-1222, ext. 113, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.

Columbia County residents voted Tuesday in a nonbinding referendum to create an at-large elected school board chairman. If the idea comes to fruition, Columbia County voters would get to choose who oversees the board.