Just before the Beaufort County School Board meeting Tuesday night, chairwoman Mary Cordray sent an email to her fellow board members and to The Island Packet to say she was withdrawing her name for re-election to the chair position.
“I am concerned that too much focus will be on me and not on what we are doing as a board or in our schools if I were to be elected chair for the upcoming two years,” Cordray wrote.
Shortly after, Patricia Felton-Montgomery — a newcomer who presented herself as critical of Superintendent Jeff Moss during the election — was installed as the board’s new leader ... by the so-called Moss Majority.
Was this a behind-the-scenes orchestration from the Moss Majority, a power grab from a voting bloc likely threatened by new faces on the board? Does it represent a shift in presumed alliance on the part of Felton-Montgomery?
Or is it simply that Felton-Montgomery, the most professionally qualified board member by far, is pursuing a role she wants and thinks she’ll be good at, while proving herself to be an independent thinker from the get-go?
The answer lies in the questions themselves, of course. Meaning, my mind should assume the latter and not go there on the former. I shouldn’t be wondering about motives or feeling suspicious about the hidden plans of a school board.
But I don’t trust them. They haven’t given me a reason to yet.
And herein lies Felton-Montgomery’s challenge.
On Tuesday night, she said her priorities were to create harmony on the board and to put the focus back on the children. Along those lines, board member Earl Campbell, who was elected vice-chairman, pointed out that this is no longer 2016, that it’s time to move on because the board cannot change things in the past.
If I have any pet peeves about the school board, it’s when those three sentiments are offered in lieu of solutions that demonstrate that the board actually understands the problem as a living, breathing and continuing impediment rather than a historical nuisance.
Positive abstractions are not going to stop the board from being seen as secretive, petty, appallingly weak and beholden to the superintendent rather than the public if members continue down the well-worn path they first created for themselves when they didn’t take action against Moss and his ethical violations in 2015.
No matter how many times school board members have said, “Let’s not dwell. Let’s move on,” they just can’t get there.
So ... how can Felton-Montgomery fix this?
Very easily, in fact.
▪ Demonstrate that she is willing to stand up to the superintendent.
▪ Treat dissenters on the board with respect rather than impatience.
▪ Equate communication with the media as communication with the public and not an act of subversion.
▪ Err on the side of openness by minimizing executive sessions.
▪ Immediately halt any discussion beyond what the law allows during executive session.
▪ Seek to unify the board through valuing different voices rather than valuing acquiescence and an adherence to secrecy.
▪ Maintain order without tamping down the messiness of democracy.
▪ Seek a relationship with the public.
▪ Recuse herself from any votes that could possibly be construed as being a conflict of interest.
▪ Encourage board members to ask more questions of the superintendent’s proposals.
▪ Lead. She can lead.
Felton-Montgomery’s election as board chairwoman could be the change this board so sorely needs. She has the resume. She has the motivation. And she seems to get it.
In her candidate questionnaire, published by The Island Packet, Felton-Montgomery acknowledged the board’s issues with trust. She showed that she’s been paying attention.
She seems to know the public expects and deserves more from its school board, and now she’s in the perfect position to deliver.
Just think, we might be close to having a school board that makes it actually possible to move on and focus on the children.