Benton gets school board seat in 4-3 vote

Published 8:59 am Wednesday, February 11, 2009

FRANKLIN—The City Council reappointed David Benton to the school board in a 4-3 vote Monday night.

Mayor Jim Councill and Councilmen Barry Cheatham, Mark Fetherolf and Benny Burgess, who made the motion, voted in favor of Benton, a nine-year veteran on the school board.

Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson and Councilwomen Rosa Lawrence and Mary Hilliard voted no.

Ellis Crum had also been nominated for the seat, as well as his wife, Phyllis. Mrs. Crum later withdrew from consideration and endorsed her husband.

Crum said he was disappointed at the outcome but wished Benton well.

“I hope David does a great job because the future of education for children in Franklin depends on it,” he said.

The vote came after a closed-door meeting that Councilwoman Mary Hilliard declined to participate in after making a motion to discuss the appointment in open session. That motion was killed in a 4-3 vote identical to the later vote on Benton’s appointment.

“I will be present, but I will not participate in this discussion,” Hilliard said.

On Tuesday, Cheatham explained his decision to deliberate in closed session.

“I thought it was best as there were some very specific things about the candidates that needed to be said that were best not discussed in open session,” he said.

Councill said that it has been the city council’s practice not to discuss such matters in public.

“It is our policy to discuss all personnel matters and board appointments in closed session as allowed by FOIA (the Virginia Freedom of Information Act). All motions and votes are acted upon in open session,” said Councill.

Before the reappointment was made, seven citizens addressed the council. Five asked that Benton not be reappointed.

Franklin resident Edna King said “enough is enough” in reference to Benton’s nine years on the school board, which she described as an era of “wild spending” by the city schools, largely under Benton’s leadership.

Prior to the vote, Hilliard told the audience she would not vote for Benton’s reappointment because she didn’t believe the schools had progressed during his tenure.

“When you do the same old things, you get the same results,” Hilliard said. “By doing the same thing over and over again we are killing the city of Franklin and its children.”

Johnson also said she would not vote for Benton. Referencing comments made by Benton last week during public interviews that some in the community said they considered culturally insensitive, Johnson said, “While I think that Mr. Benton’s remarks were inappropriate and insensitive, we still need to look past that.”

Johnson said that when she did that, she still didn’t think Benton was the right one for the job because of his past actions as a school board member.

Lawrence said she was still concerned about Benton’s remarks during last week’s interview with council members in which he referenced “ghetto-style” clothing worn by youngsters.

“I think we need someone to deal with the city as a whole and the children and someone to be able to deal with diversity,” said Lawrence. “My vote will not be for David Benton.”

None of the council members who voted in favor of Benton commented before the vote.

On Tuesday, Councill explained his reasons for choosing Benton.

“David Benton has served the school board well over the years of his appointments and is dedicated to providing the best education for our children,” Councill said. “He is actively involved in various aspects of the schools, he is well informed on critical issues and has the best interest of the children as his focus. He attends and supports numerous functions of the schools. He has demonstrated his commitment to the school system with his personal and family support for years. He has proven himself,” he said.

Cheatham said he voted for Benton “because I believe that with the things the school board is currently doing, coupled with the discussions council had in closed session, that he was the right one for the job at this time.”

After the meeting, Benton said he was eager to get back to school board business.

“I’m just ready to get back to work. There is a lot that needs to be done,” he said.

Several attempts to contact Fetherolf and Burgess for comment were unsuccessful.

Benton’s term will expire June 30.

He was removed from the school board’s at-large seat last month as the result of a state attorney general’s opinion that Benton’s appointment last spring was invalid due to a violation of the Freedom of Information Act.