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Two challengers are no-shows for Savannah-Chatham’s only public school board election forum

Connect Savannah publisher Rufus Friday (standing) introduces moderator Coco Guthrie-Papy prior to the Savannah-Chatham School Board forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024 at Front Porch Improv with District 7 incumbent Michael Johnson (left) and challenger Jay Jones.

Connect Savannah publisher Rufus Friday (standing) introduces moderator Coco Guthrie-Papy prior to the Savannah-Chatham School Board forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024 at Front Porch Improv with District 7 incumbent Michael Johnson (left) and challenger Jay Jones.

Attendees and viewers wanting to learn more about the candidates vying for the Savannah-Chatham County School Board were blocked from meeting two challengers as they left the only public forum held ahead of Tuesday’s election.

The cancellations allowed the District 1 session to become a one-woman show for incumbent Denise Grabowski, while the District 7 session gave incumbent Michael Johnson and challenger James “Jay” Jones more time to make their case.

The forum must continue

Front Porch Improv, 210 W. Victory Drive, provided the venue for the forum. Deep Center, Voices for Schools and Migrant Equity Southeast collaborated on the event, while Connect Savannah provided streaming coverage.

Forum organizers received a shock Friday when District 1 challenger Barbara Hubbard canceled due to a personal conflict. On Saturday, organizers were notified that District 7 challenger Stephanie Campbell also had to cancel.

Kelly Pack, administrator of local advocacy group Voices for Schools, said the event was planned “just under a month ago.” She said the dates and times shared with the candidates initially received a “positive response.”

Fellow Voices for School administrator Jenny McCord expressed her frustration with the late cancellations. She found it curious that both candidates withdrew after the debate guidelines and rules were shared. Pack explained that “earlier this week” the descriptions about the timing for questions and rebuttals came out. Included in these descriptions were rules requiring candidates not to bring cell phones or take notes on stage. Pack and McCord confirmed that neither candidate cited the rules as a reason for cancellation.

Hubbard did not respond to a Savannah Morning News (SMN) request for comment prior to this press, but Pack said Hubbard’s conflict stemmed from visitors coming to town for her husband’s birthday, which was also on Sunday.

Campbell informed organizers that a campaign event scheduled last Saturday had to be moved to Sunday due to rain. She responded to the SMN’s request for comment, stating that she “attended meet and greets and surveys in neighborhoods that have yet to vote in this important election. She said she shared “my fundamental belief that ‘we can do better.’

All other candidates confirmed their desire to attend, so organizers continued with Sunday’s forum.

Savannah-Chatham School Board forum moderator Coco Guthrie-Papy (left), of Deep Center, listens as incumbent District 1 official Denise Grabowski answers a question Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.Savannah-Chatham School Board forum moderator Coco Guthrie-Papy (left), of Deep Center, listens as incumbent District 1 official Denise Grabowski answers a question Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.

Savannah-Chatham School Board forum moderator Coco Guthrie-Papy (left), of Deep Center, listens as incumbent District 1 official Denise Grabowski answers a question Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.

The school board’s District 1 forum explains the board’s role

Grabowski took the stage minus challenger Hubbard, even though organizers and Grabowski were willing to shift the day’s schedule to accommodate Hubbard, who ultimately declined. That gave Grabowski, vice president of the board, nearly an hour to assert her knowledge of school board governance and reiterate key campaign points.

Forum moderator Coco Guthrie-Papy, Deep Center’s director of public policy and communications, let Grabowski start the conversation by clarifying what school boards can and cannot do. Grabowski boiled it down to three major responsibilities: policy making (then established by the Superintendent and her team), approving the budget, and hiring/firing, as well as annual reviews of the Superintendent.

Guthrie-Papy also asked questions about a variety of topics, from transportation to financing and the Quality Basic Education Act, or QBE, which sets provisions for education funding provided by the state to school districts. Grabowski said the QBE is “woefully outdated,” and does not address current technology or educational needs. The QBE was adopted in 1985 and the formula has not been updated since. She concluded her time by touching on her “unique perspective” as an urban planner who understands “how our built environment really impacts the way our teachers teach and our students learn.”

Savannah-Chatham School Board Representative Cornelia Hall takes notes as challenger Tanet Taharka Myers addresses the audience at the School Board Election Forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.Savannah-Chatham School Board Representative Cornelia Hall takes notes as challenger Tanet Taharka Myers addresses the audience at the School Board Election Forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.

Savannah-Chatham School Board Representative Cornelia Hall takes notes as challenger Tanet Taharka Myers addresses the audience at the School Board Election Forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.

District 3 school board candidates are getting mired in details

The second of Sunday’s three forums featured incumbent District 3 Commander Cornelia Hall and challenger Tanet Taharka Myers. Hall presented herself as experienced and consensus builder, while Myers claimed she was approachable. Hall called on her record and tenure on the board as evidence of her commitment, while Myers called on her experience as a graduate of SCCPSS and parent of a child with special needs who graduated from the district. Both reiterated key talking points from recent interviews.

At one point, Guthrie-Papy asked a question about community requests for more counseling, support and special needs services (among other requests) from SCCPSS to the board, only to address community resistance about possible millage increases rate to finance those services. She cited the current millage rate of 17.6%, which Hall believed was more than 18%. After some fact checking by event organizers and confirmations from fellow board members in the audience, it was made clear that the millage rate was once 18,131 mills in 2021 before the board voted to roll it back to 17,631 mills in 2022, where it has remained . since.

The current board will hold public hearings on the millage rate at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on June 12 and at 6 p.m. on June 20 at the Whitney Administrative Complex, Building G in the Jessie Collier DeLoach Boardroom.

Michael Johnson (left), representative of the Savannah-Chatham School Board District 7, listens as challenger Jay Jones answers a question during a school board election forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.Michael Johnson (left), representative of the Savannah-Chatham School Board District 7, listens as challenger Jay Jones answers a question during a school board election forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.

Michael Johnson (left), representative of the Savannah-Chatham School Board District 7, listens as challenger Jay Jones answers a question during a school board election forum on Sunday, May 19, 2024, at Front Porch Improv.

Candidates for District 7 school board discuss West Chatham’s growth

With District 7 challenger Stephanie Campbell out of the lineup, Guthrie-Papy asked questions of Johnson and Jones. Growth in West Chatham was key to the District 7 forum session, especially regarding transportation. Although both Jones and Johnson, as well as Campbell, live in District 7 of SCCPSS, none of the candidates’ children attend schools in the district. Johnson’s son attends Savannah Classical Academy, a SCCPSS charter school, and Jones’ son attends Virginia L. Heard Elementary School through the school district’s Choice Program. Both underscored the need for equal access to transportation and choice programs for communities in West Chatham and for more schools in general, especially a high school in Pooler.

While both candidates agreed that the district’s staff was its greatest asset, Johnson felt the district’s biggest challenge was its inconsistencies in communication, special needs access and discipline policies. Jones felt the biggest challenges were transportation and the lack of diversity among teachers, which did not reflect the student population. Most of the discussion focused on calls for greater fiscal responsibility, an overhaul of millage rates, and the need to advocate at the state level for an update to the QBE.

Total attendance fluctuated for each session, with at most about 40 people attending. Connect Savannah has been live-streaming the forums via its Facebook page, and publisher Rufus said Friday that the streams had been viewed more than 1,300 times as of Sunday night around 9 p.m.

The polling stations open on Tuesday, May 21 at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. To view your voter registration status in Georgia, visit mvp.sos.ga.gov/s/.

Joseph Schwartzburt is an education and workforce development reporter for the Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Two challengers leave Savannah-Chatham school board forum