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School board deals with trust, image
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Members of the Newton County school board and the school system's attorney are adamant about one thing when it comes to discussing the lawsuit filed against board member Jeff Meadors by high school principal LaQuanda Carpenter: The lawsuit doesn't involve the school board, and they don't want to talk about it.

"The lawsuit has nothing to do with the Newton County School System and I will not discuss it. We are not involved in it at all. She's not suing the Newton County Board of Education," said Almond Turner, the board's most senior member with 16 years of service.

"He has not been sued as an official. He's been sued as an individual," said school system attorney Kent Campbell, adding that to this point, the school system has had no role at all in the litigation that has been working its way through the courts over the past few months.

"The lawsuit is not something that involves the board of education. It involves an individual on the board, but not the board of education, not the school system directly," echoed school board member Shakila Henderson-Baker.

But while the board members work diligently to keep their distance from the lawsuit itself, it's impossible for them not to feel some of the ripples caused by its having been tossed into the litigation pond.

Turner clearly is frustrated by what he perceives as inaccurate information about the schools that have been spread throughout the county as a result of the ongoing controversy.

"When information is put out, often times the confused as to what is fact or fiction," Turner said of the flurry of allegations and accusations, much of it posted online, that have emerged from the shadows of the lawsuit.

On the specific issue of online commentators being harshly critical of the school system and school personnel, Turner said, "I challenge any citizen who has any concerns about our school system...if they are that concerned about positive progress of our county and our school system...please don't hesitate to talk to us one on one, or as a group. Anybody can form wrong opinions if they don't have all the data."

Turner said there have been ample opportunities for those with specific concerns to bring them to the school board or the school administration for discussion, but to little avail.

"[School Superintendent Dr. Gary Mathews] has put it out there for people to come and talk to us, but it doesn't happen," Turner said, bemoaning what he labeled as "misinformed opinions."

Turner was adamant, however, that those who choose to do so, have the right to post online about the schools to express their opinions, and to do so anonymously if they so choose. He just wishes some of them were better informed.

"Throwing out statements, when some of them are very false statements, is just not good for our county," he said.

"People are tired of so much negative input in our school system. We've worked to try to get a lot of the positive out. But people thrive on negative," he added.

While he wishes those who have been hypercritical of the schools and school personnel better understood some of the issues about which they post online, Turner had little to say about Meadors, his fellow board member who has become a lightning rod on the board of education.

Asked if Meadors could be expected to be objective in dealing with issues involving principal Carpenter or her husband deputy superintendent of Operations Dennis Carpenter, Turner declined to speculate.

"I can't answer that. That would be a concern for our attorney and the rest of the board members. If a situation arises where there may be a conflict, the board would have to look at each individual case," he said.

Turner also said he did not have a problem with Meadors continuing to write a regular column for a local newspaper, a practice the local chamber of commerce president recently asked the board to have stopped.

"The board of education has not discussed that with him at all. He has the right to speak on any topic he chooses. Speaking for myself, not the rest of the board members, we have a responsibility to give facts to the public. With these facts, if there are concerns, we should talk about remedies we have in place to address those concerns," Turner said.

Eddie Johnson, currently serving as chairman of the school board, makes no secret of the fact he feels the litigation and issues surrounding it have impacted the board and the relationships of its members.

Nearing the end of his first term, Johnson is seeking re-election this year. He said there is no doubt the ongoing issues with Meadors have created a distraction for the board and impacted the relationship of its membership.

Johnson said that because of the lawsuit, he does not feel Meadors can be objective on some issues, but that the other members of the school system's governing body will have to continue to do their jobs.

"Our option is to try to continue to be as professional as we can and to resort to the majority rule concept. We will work around it. Not saying it's the best way. We're dealing with it in a professional manner, although it's not pleasant."

Johnson said he does believe allegations that Meadors has shared information from the board's executive sessions with others who have then used the material for online posting fodder.

"I can't prove it, but I really believe it. It impacts my confidence in him," Johnson said.

"I'm reluctant to discuss some things with him. I don't have confidence he abides by rules enforced to do with executive sessions," he added.

School system attorney Campbell said the Georgia School Board Association has a specific statement related to board members maintaining the confidentiality of executive session conversations.

"I've always taken the position that what is said in executive session should remain in executive session. Members should be able to express themselves freely without someone running to the newspaper for their 15 minutes of fame," Campbell said.

But Johnson doesn't think Meadors is concerned with keeping executive session conversations confidential. Asked if he trusted Meadors, Johnson replied, "Not the least bit."

"He is just disruptive. There is a lack of confidence, a lack of trust," Johnson added.

"I would like for him to come to his senses and be a team player, be a participant in good government. I don't expect everyone to agree all the time, but just to be devious is an unfair burden on the board," Johnson said of Meadors.

Johnson also said he was afraid the negative publicity currently being received by the school system could have an impact on future hires for the school system.

"It's difficult to measure the impact. I'm positive it would be concerning to some people, a lot of people, but I can't grasp how much. No doubt in my mind if they became aware, they would have second thoughts.

Henderson-Baker agreed on the potential impact the current issues might have on making quality hires in the future.

"Yes, it would be harder to hire quality employees. A lot of people, when looking, one of the things that people say is to look up the school or school system. If they were to Google the school system or school, these articles would come up," she said.

Like Turner, Henderson-Baker is concerned that people are making poorly informed judgments about what is going on with the county's schools.
"I wish people would not make assumptions based on everything they hear, on both sides of the story, [and] would not entertain actions [based on things] that have been found to be false," she said.

Henderson-Baker had little to say about her colleague Meadors, declining to answer some questions and referring others to the board attorney.

She did say that she agreed that Meadors should be allowed to write a newspaper column if he chooses to do so, adding that if she were given that opportunity, she would use it to "highlight the positives," of things going on in the school system.

"I am a wholehearted NCSS supporter," she said.

Board member Abigail Morgan Coggin echoed the need to draw attention to the many positives in the school system in order to offset any negative publicity.

"We need to be the cheerleaders for all the positive things out there. There are so many good things going on in our schools today. I'm blown away every day by what teachers and students are telling me they are doing in school. These success stories get pushed to back burner because of other issues," Coggin said.

She said she does not expect the current situation to hamper the board's ability to do its job.

"We can still function efficiently. It does offer some negative impact toward our schools, and I hate that it's there. Regardless, there is always going to be some negative issue. We just have to deal with it, do our best as a school board to make right decisions and move our school system forward. That's part of being an adult," Coggin said.

She added that the issue of Meadors' objectivity was one he would have to address for himself.

Coggin said that whether Meadors should recuse himself from voting in some situations, "would depend on the issue at hand. There are certain issues involving Alcovy, for instance, which are not directly related to any staff such as Dr. Carpenter. In those instances, I don't think there is a need for him to recuse himself. If there was a staffing issue directly related to Dr. Carpenter, if it were me, I would recuse myself; Jeff would have to make that decision on his own."

Coggin said it is important for board members to continue to do their jobs, regardless of the status of the lawsuit and related issues.

"We are all elected by our different districts for a certain period of time. Even though, in all situations we might not all agree, I think we are all adults and we all can work together, and agree to disagree if we happen to disagree with each other. I will be able to work with all the elected officials I serve with and with other entities we work with, even though we may not always agree 100 percent," she said.

The News reached out to both Meadors and his attorney Jeffrey Foster this past week. In a Friday email Foster said neither he nor Meadors would participate in interviews while the lawsuit is pending.

Meadors and Foster have in the past denied any involvement in the online postings cited in the litigation.

The situation in which the school system finds itself, with an administrative member having filed a defamation suit against a sitting board member, is certainly rare in Georgia, if not unique.

Jim Puckett, an administrator with the Georgia School Board Association, said he had inquired among staff at that organization and found no one aware of any legal precedence on the issue that might guide local board members in their actions.

Puckett said if board members are concerned that a member of their body is guilty of an ethics violation, there is a process through Senate Bill 84 that allows for a public hearing and which can result in a "censoring" of the member by others on the board.

But beyond negative publicity that might surround such an action, the censoring has little punitive affect.

"The consensus is, this is one for the courts. It's one for the lawyers," Puckett said.