King returned to school board in vote along racial lines

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Franklin Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn said it wasn’t about race. In fact, only Ward 3 Councilman Greg McLemore addressed what he called the undertone of the at-large school board position decision between a 30-year educator, and a 25-year business leader.

As McLemore spoke of the relevance of that undertone, which was about maintaining a black majority on the school board, the audience — packed as full as any council meeting in recent memory — sat divided.

Pew by pew, black members of the community sat together, and the same was true of the white members, who gathered in fewer numbers. It was on the night that Franklin was set to approve the budget 2015-16, but few were there for that. It was all about the future of the school board.

Chuck Lilley, the white business leader, stood alone for the entire meeting in the back. Edna King, current at-large and school board chair, sat at the edge of a pew in the back, surrounded by members of the black community.

“I would like to applaud my colleagues for realizing that as much as we try to look past it, there is an arena that we all share,” McLemore said, “and it is called political.”

As part of the political process, John Rose, during Citizens’ Time, brought a petition that the community had created in support of King, signed 204 times. Members of the black community had also resorted to a less savory tactic: threatening to boycott Johnson-Ashburn’s downtown business, Johnson and Sons Funeral Home. That’s because five years ago she had been elected with the support of the business community, and Lilley had been her campaign manager.

“To those who used intimidation tactics, I would like to invite you to get to know me,” the mayor said. “Anyone who knows me, knows that I focus on the issue at hand. This is not about me or my personal business, this is not about Raystine, this is not about race.

“This decision was solely made on what I think was the right decision for the children, the school division and the city.”

No one else who chose to speak mentioned race. For Ward 5’s Mary Hilliard, experience was the most important factor.

“If I would hire someone for a job, I would want the most experienced person I could find,” she said, adding that Franklin City Council increased the term limit from two three-year appointments, to three not long ago. “Having six years of direct training makes a difference. Six years versus zero years. To cast a vote for any reason, other than experience, would be a personal attack.”

Hilliard said some people are placing the failure of Franklin students on the Standards of Learning tests on one single person — King. During her time on the board, all three schools were accredited with warning, and two of them became priority schools — the bottom five percent of the state. This massive failure of the schools transpired as King was named chair, though also during her leadership, Franklin High School recovered its fully accredited status for the current year.

“If one person has that much authority, then you don’t need the other six on the board,” Hilliard said.

Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham said he didn’t blame King alone for the SOL failures. Further, the representation she provided for the school district in front of the Board of Education was terrible. King has appeared in Richmond several times, as those involved worked out the most expansive Corrective Action Plan — covering every level of operation in the district that had failed students, including, but not limited to, the school board, human resources and curriculum — that then Superintendent of Education Dr. Patricia Wright had ever set out to impose on a division. It took more than a year of meetings to get a final Corrective Action Plan approved. Members of the board of education accused King of making excuses and not accepting responsibility for the division’s children.

Cheatham, however, agreed with Hilliard that experience was important.

“With Lilley, we have someone who is experienced in business, human resources, and that is something this board sorely needs,” he said. “Education is now a big business, hence the budget we have to pass.

“Right now, on the board, business experience is not there. He can bring that as well as a level head.”

Murphy said that the situation in Richmond was bad, but she didn’t feel that King had provided bad leadership. She said the downfall of the school system goes back many years, and that this school board accepted the challenge of righting the ship.

“They listened to all of the criticism,” she said. “When they came back, they got in and pulled themselves up from where they were.

“Mrs. King has led the board through turmoil.”

Murphy said Lilley may have more experience in business, but that King had the overall experience in helping children.

“Yes, things can happen,” she said. “But she is not the only one up there. It seems people just want to put this on Mrs. King, and that’s not fair. To make another choice, it would be truly tragic to do that. She has all the experience needed.”

Johnson-Ashburn said this decision has consumed her above all other matters since the nomination was made a month ago. The situation bothered her so much that she thanked her husband, Charlie Ashburn Jr., for providing stability at home during a difficult storm.

“I am concerned that we have somewhat a new board,” she said. “We need stability. I have considered the parental involvement we are experiencing now and the forward momentum.

“Unfortunately, some are not going to be happy either way the vote goes. Just know, I have done my very best to determine what was the correct decision to make.”

Before the at-large vote, two new members were placed on the board. Robert Holt of Ward 6 and Verta Jackson of Ward 4, who each ran unopposed with incumbents Dawna Walton and Sherita Ricks-Parker stepping down. Holt and Jackson have each served on the board before. They will join Will Councill, who has served for more than seven years, Nancy Godwin and Jeanette Austin, who have served for two years, and Andrea Hall-Leonard, a parent and long-time teacher, who has served for one year.

As the 3-3 tie got to the mayor, she cast her vote along with McLemore, Hilliard and Murphy for King. Cheatham, as well as Benny Burgess and Frank Rabil — who did not offer comment — cast for Lilley.

Very few members of the gathered public remained once the vote concluded. With the sound of loud cheers coming from the foyer, the mayor had to pause the meeting until the noise moved outside City Hall.

The new terms for school board members will begin in July.