An opportunity missed

Published 12:52 pm Saturday, November 2, 2013

This past Wednesday, Franklin’s city council had an opportunity to show a united front, take a stand on an issue of tremendous magnitude and display the type of leadership that city residents have been demanding for months. The joint meeting between council and the school board was a unique chance to hear not just the board’s plans for regaining full accreditation at all three city schools, but also to also gain understanding into why a once-proud school district has managed to fall into complete disarray. Yet, instead of holding the school board and superintendent’s feet to the fire on the few direct and probing questions that were asked, council ultimately settled for responses primarily provided by division superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle and school board chair Edna King that were often defensive and at times evasive.

In their defense, council members Benny Burgess, Barry Cheatham and Greg McLemore asked some meaningful questions to which they deserved, but mostly didn’t get, meaningful answers. Yet rather than encourage more discussion, Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn seemed more intent on shielding Belle and King from criticism and challenging questions than allowing meaningful dialogue by urging her fellow council members to move on rather than dig in their heels. All three followed up when dissatisfied with the schools board’s responses, but ultimately gave up when it became clear the school board chair, superintendent and mayor weren’t interested in cooperating.

And so an opportunity for the mayor, and by extension the entire council, to provide leadership on this issue was lost.

The mayor has gone out of her way to make clear that city council has no authority over the school board, having gone so far as to bring in an attorney from Richmond to back her point. Yes, it is true that neither the mayor individually nor the council collectively have any legal standing with respect to oversight of the school board. But that’s not the point. Council has a responsibility to address the issues that affect this city, even if it doesn’t have the legal authority to directly impact them. As such, council should not remain silent on the single most pressing issue facing Franklin today: the complete and total breakdown of its school system.

There is even precedent for Franklin city council to voice its opinion on a matter on which it has no legal authority. During a city council meeting held on April 14, 2008, council adopted a resolution of support for Southampton County’s opposition to a proposed naval facility within its borders. The current city council is uncomfortable speaking up about the condition of its own schools, yet council in 2008 spoke up on something that one could argue wasn’t even any of its business. To make the case that council can’t take a position on an issue it doesn’t control just doesn’t hold water. By the way, two of the council members at the time the resolution was adopted were Raystine Johnson and Mary Hilliard.

I have a tremendous amount of personal respect for Mayor Johnson-Ashburn. Her job is a challenging one under the best of circumstances, and her goal of maintaining a unified council is an important and admirable one. Based upon the conduct of other council members on Wednesday night, members don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of our schools. Maybe if more council members would make the decision to tackle this issue versus staying mum in the name of community harmony, the mayor would feel safe knowing she wasn’t going out on the limb by herself. But sometimes, effective leadership requires a venturing out on the limb alone, demonstrating to others that it’s not always a dangerous place to be. Councilmen Burgess, Cheatham and McLemore demonstrated their willingness to step out on the issue. Mayor Johnson-Ashburn and councilors Hilliard and Mona Murphy should follow suit.

There is no doubt that when the mayor took office, Franklin needed someone who would restore some order to council meetings whose circus-like atmosphere had become an embarrassment to the city; this mayor has done that and done it well. But a council that gets along well yet refuses to lead on an issue is of virtually no use to the city it serves. A council that will move forward on a tough but important issue is. That is the type of council, and the type of leadership, Franklin needs.