Tea Party turns up heat on BoE’s Terri Smith
It was a meeting featuring Fayette County Board of Education member Terri Smith, but it essentially amounted to questions about school board Chairman Leonard Presberg. Smith spoke to a group of nearly 90 people Feb. 28 at the meeting called by the Fayette County Issues Tea Party at the Whitewater Creek Country Club.
Smith came with a presentation that covered a range of issues pertaining to the school system. But that presentation essentially transformed into a question and answer session on Chairman and District 5 school board member Leonard Presberg.
Smith began her remarks on Presberg by explaining the process by which he was appointed to the board after the death of former board member Sam Tolbert. Presberg was not elected by the public to fill the vacancy nor could he have been since local legislation from previous years required that the school board appoint someone to fill the vacant position, she said. Presberg received a unanimous vote to fill the position.
Though he served without much fanfare since his appointment in late 2011, it has only been in the past few weeks that Presberg has gained notoriety when a previous post was found on the Fayette FreeThought Society website.
“It never occurred to me until others complained that he was any less a board member than the rest of us,” said Smith.
Noting the remarks by the seven candidates vying last fall for the District 5 seat, Smith said none of them talked about religion, but centered their comments instead on what they wanted to do on the school board.
An audience member asked about the vetting process for the school board seat. Smith in response said the board asked for and received applications and resumes for the position.
Smith was asked if she had been aware of Presberg’s posting on the Fayette FreeThought Society website prior to his selection. Smith said she had not been aware of the posting, adding that she had Googled Presberg but did not see the posting.
That question was followed by another, asking if she would have voted for him if she had been aware of the posting. Smith in response said she did not know.
“I haven’t seen him be rude or un-Christlike. He has not been demonic or mean. I think if you knew him you wouldn’t react this way,” Smith said to those in the room expressing their concerns with Presberg’s appointment to the school board. “Based on what he’s told me I don’t think you need to be as scared or worried as you are. I don’t think Leonard wishes any one’s children harm.”
As for her vote for Presberg to be elected as the school board chair, Smith said, “It’s important for the board chair, as a school system representative, to be someone working to build support for the school system instead of criticizing staff. I was impressed with what he stressed over and over, to stop arguing and bickering and move forward.”
Presberg in his Oct. 31 letter of intent for the District 5 seat referenced the need to move forward as a school system rather than focusing on the negatives.
Pertaining to the 3-2 vote in January to make Presberg board chair, Smith said, “Primarily what I was looking for, I was satisfied that he could accomplish the task and do the job. I think he’s smart enough to learn things like parliamentary procedure. I’m not worried about him being able to do what the chair does, although he does have a PR problem.”
Smith’s remark on the function of the school board chairman might not have been clear to some in the audience since most people do not attend school board meetings except perhaps during the opening minutes of a meeting if their child is being recognized.
Those unfamiliar with those meetings would not know that, unlike some boards, the school board chair is largely ceremonial. The remaining four board members have a multi-year history of interjecting their thoughts and opinions at-will during meetings. This accounts for the sometimes lively board discussions and split votes in recent years.
At one point Smith suggested that the group might want to ask Presberg to speak since she was unable to answer questions that dealt with his personal beliefs.
Another question centered on Presberg’s history with Montessori education. That history was included in his application for the school board seat.
“I know about his history (with Montessori) but I’m not aware of a problem with Montessori (education). It’s on the approved list for (Georgia school) models,” Smith said.
Among the members of the audience that night was Fayette FreeThought Society founder Julie Williams who, in a brief comment near the end of the meeting, said she had children in the school system, that she loves her children and that she pays taxes and votes. Asked by someone in the audience if she is an atheist, Williams said she considers herself to be.
Both the Fayette County Board of Education and the Fayette County Commission were served in early August with the federal lawsuit brought by the Fayette County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Addressing the lawsuit was on the agenda for Smith, though she spoke about it only in brief because the questions and comments continued to center largely on Presberg. Meeting moderator Bob Ross at one point had to interrupt several audience members posing simultaneous questions and comments, asking them to let Smith continue with the presentation.
Smith referencing the lawsuit noted that the school board discussed the matter in executive session in meetings on Aug. 29, Sept. 19 and Oct. 3. Smith added that the fourth executive session where the meeting was discussed was on Dec. 12, also the date of Presberg’s first board meeting and the first time she spoke with him about the suit.
During her remarks on the suit Smith told the audience that she brought 20 copies of a handout that outlined the lawsuit, questions and answers pertaining to it and her subsequent decision to vote to settle with the NAACP. Only two people requested a copy of the handout after the meeting.
Bottom line, the handout cited numerous court decisions nationwide, leading Smith to believe that the school board would be in a losing position if the lawsuit had been fought rather than settled. And the cost to do so, though only estimated, would nonetheless be substantial, she said.
“It is impossible to say precisely but estimates from our attorney to defend the suit were around $500,000. If we didn’t prevail, we would have been required to pay the plaintiff’s legal expenses. With the full support of the national NAACP we wouldn’t be paying local lawyers, but we’d be paying Madison Avenue lawyers. Those expenses have been estimated at around $2 million,” Smith said in the handout.
“Remember that every expense in the school system budget should either directly or indirectly support student achievement. How much should Fayette’s school children be expected to sacrifice to fund a defense in a lawsuit that we would most likely lose and would only change us to a voting system that mirrors those already used (in 75.3 percent of Georgia counties) around the state? My answer to that question is ‘Nothing.’ Fayette’s school children shouldn’t have to sacrifice one single thing to fund a defense in this suit,” Smith said in the handout.
Referencing the lawsuit, Smith in the handout said school board attorney Phil Hartley would not have moved forward with negotiations without a consensus of the four existing board members.
Though it did not surface during the meeting, there exists the potential that Presberg’s place on the school board could be a moot point later this year. That is because the lawsuit settlement requires that a special election for the District 5 seat be held in November.
The school board’s newly drawn reapportionment map based on the 2010 Census puts District 5 close to being a majority-minority district where nearly 49 percent of the population of the north Fayette County district is black. The inclusion of the special election was specified by the NAACP in the settlement language that was agreed to by the school board.
Smith at the beginning of the evening reviewed a number of issues such as the status and quality of the school system, current and potential initiatives and financial issues. Smith also spoke briefly about local control issues along with unfunded and under-funded mandates, noting that such mandates are constantly changing and are generally not for the better.
Smith fielded the few questions posed on those topics, also recommending that Superintendent Jeff Bearden be asked to address those topics in greater detail if the group wanted additional information.