By Kristen Johnson, Staff Writer -
For the eight candidates competing for a seat on the Davidson County Board of Commissioners, education and economic development go hand in hand.
But for the 50 voters who attentively listened to the candidates, the main concern was what candidates would do to help the county’s schools.
Candidates spoke at a forum held Thursday evening in the cafeteria at E.L. Brown Middle School.
Sponsored by the Comer Parent Councils of Fair Grove and Plot Elementary schools and Brown Middle, the forum was moderated by Ledford High School teacher Pernell Collett.
Each candidate was given four minutes to speak and answer a question randomly assigned to him or her.
Libertarian candidate Steve Nelson of Arcadia was not invited to the forum, as his name did not appear on the list of candidates supplied to the Brown Parent Council.
Incumbent Republican Cindy Akins spoke first.
Akins responded to a question that asked whether she would support “starting a fund for teachers to use toward supplies.”
“Yes, I’d support that, but there’s a problem there,” Akins told the group.
Akins said that while the county commissioners do approve the school system’s budget, they do not tell school boards how that money should be spent.
“The budget we receive from the schools isn’t broken down,” Akins explained. “We don’t designate how the funds should be spent — it’s up to the school boards to allocate funds.”
Akins also said that as a commissioner, she had supported and would continue to support the one-cent tax set-aside to fund school construction.
“I’ll continue to fund our schools,” Akins said. “Overcrowding will continue, and we’ve got to be ready to build new schools to alleviate that.”
Democrat Max Walser, former superintendent for the Davidson County school system, spoke next.
He was asked to explain how he would “attract qualified career teachers when the teacher supplement does not compete with that of surrounding systems.”
Walser explained that he had “forced” the issue back in 1986, his first year as superintendent.
“To start, it was just $50, but I believe it’s 5 percent of a teacher’s salary now,” Walser said. “And I’d push for it to be higher.”
Walser told the group his top priority was economic development.
“If we can increase the tax base in this county, we’ll have a good educational system because we’ll be able to fund it,” Walser said. “The property tax is not enough by itself to fund things like education, mental health, social services and law enforcement.”
Incumbent Republican Rick Lanier, who took the podium after Walser, answered a question that asked whether he would fund auditoriums, video surveillance systems or improved security systems.
“I’d probably fund video surveillance systems,” Lanier said.
Lanier echoed what Akins said earlier regarding funding for the schools.
“Commissioners don’t pick and choose how things are spent,” Lanier said, “but I think video surveillance equipment would give us good coverage.”
Lanier said economic development was a top priority for him, as well.
“There are tough times economically nationwide,” he said. “We’ve got to continue laying the groundwork for positive economic development.”
He cited sewer projects for schools, industries and commercial businesses as part of that groundwork.
Democrat Charles Kennedy Jr. spoke next, and answered a question regarding his plan for “the recruitment of business and industry with better paying jobs in the county.”
“Economic development plays a big part in everything,” Kennedy said. “The project to provide countywide sewer is a great one — it’ll attract business.”
Kennedy drew a connection between economic development and education.
“Education is the beginning,” he said. “Businesses must realize that Davidson County is a good place to receive an education.”
Republican Don Truell, former mayor and chief of police in Thomasville, spoke after Kennedy. His question regarded his stance on helping the school board without “trying to micro-manage” the board.
“One of the best things the school board has going for it is that it is non-partisan,” Truell said, admitting he “hates” partisan elections. “But we, as commissioners, need to be more responsive to the needs of the school board — we ought to meet more often.”
Truell said he felt as though schools could recieve all the support they need — and do it all without raising the property tax rate inspite of an increasing population in the school system.
After the forum, Truell said economic development would increase the county’s tax base, which would allow more than adequate funding for all county departments without raising taxes.
Democrat Loretta Martin assumed the podium after Truell.
Her question regarded her support for a state lottery and asked how she thought “the lottery would actually produce funding for education at the local level.”
Martin stopped short of directly voicing her support for or opposition to the lottery.
“I support giving citizens the right to vote on the issue,” she said. “I don’t like it that our legislators think they know better than we do.”
Martin did concede that she thought a lottery would “give us more funding options.”
“I think it’s time for a change,” Martin said of the Republican party’s 12-year stronghold on the Board of Commissioners.
Martin said by the year 2010, the county’s population would increase by 13 percent — or more than 16,000 people.
“The thing is, our per-pupil expenditure is the next to the lowest in the state,” she said. “Businesses see that and aren’t impressed. I think we can do better.”
Democrat Watson Gregg warned the group that furniture manufacturing is losing its foothold as a county employer.
“They’re closing up,” Gregg said, referring to TFI’s recent announcement that Plant B would close by December. “We’ve got to diversify.”
Gregg told the group he “never heard whether Davidson County has funds set aside for economic development incentives.”
But after the forum, Akins told him the county did, in fact, have funds set aside for incentives but that it was “hard to compete when someone else offers a business $4 million.”
Gregg’s question regarded his thoughts on “removing Spanish from elementary school curriculums.”
“Eventually, we may become the minority,” Gregg said. “More and more Spanish-speaking people are coming into the city.”
The last candidate to speak was Republican Sam Watford.
Watford said economic development was “without a doubt” a priority for him — but said he felt the “best answer to these tough times is to help the working man in business for himself expand through help with zoning and permitting.”
Watford also suggested revising the county’s land-use plan.
“Growth around our municipalities is stressing our schools, highways and quality of life,” Watford said.
His question dealt with the relationship between city and county fire departments, and whether responses to county schools could be done by the fire departments closest to that school.
“There are mutual aid agreements between city and county fire departments,” Watford said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think those agreements already address the issue.”
Staff writer Kristen Johnson can be reached 472-9500, ext. 232.
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