By a 5-1 vote after two of the eight members left during a protracted meeting Thursday night, the Bulloch County Board of Education extended Superintendent Charles Wilson's contract by one year, giving him a 2-percent raise next July 1.
Wilson's previous contract, approved in May 2015 and effective since July 1, 2016, would have expired next July 31. It required that he be notified by Dec. 31 of whether it would be renewed. His newly approved contract will extend from July 1, 2018 to July 31, 2019.
His annual salary, currently $173,353, will rise to $176,820.
"I appreciate the board's support and confidence in us continuing to move forward on the foundation we've established," Wilson said Friday. "This is important work we've established. It's important that we keep our momentum and that we keep focusing on the things that we know are going to improve this district."
After an open session beginning at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the media center at Julia P. Bryant Elementary School, the board went into closed session before 8 p.m. to discuss Wilson's contract renewal and other personnel decisions. The board held several other closed sessions this fall while reviewing Wilson's progress on its goals.
All board members were present for the open session, where Dr. Tom Bigwood reported on schools' progress in the use of teacher teams called professional learning communities, or PLC's. Bigwood, who retired as Candler County's school superintendent and was previously a school principal in Bulloch County, has been doing consulting work on this effort.
Absences and vote
But at the end of the open session, District 2 board member Mike Sparks went home because he was ill. Then, about halfway through the closed session, District 8 member Maurice Hill left the meeting because of the needs of his business, preparing for a funeral, he said.
The board emerged from the closed session about 10:30 p.m. After a unanimous vote on recommendations on other personnel, District 4 member Steve Hein made the motion to accept Wilson's contract, and District 3 member Dr. Stuart Tedders seconded.
Hein, Tedders, District 6 member Jay Cook, District 7 member Heather Mims and board Chair Cheri Wagner, of District 1, voted in favor. District 5 member Glennera Martin voted "no."
Asked to comment on the contract renewal, Wagner said she would consult the other members and provide a statement the next day.
"The Board recognizes the positive work the superintendent has done," Wagner stated on behalf of the board majority. "Both the Board and the superintendent acknowledge that this is a critical time of transition. With infrastructure in place, we are encouraged that the superintendent can lead the system into the next transition."
That was from the second of two statements Wagner issued through Hayley Greene, Bulloch County schools public relations and marketing specialist. It came in response to a question from the Statesboro Herald on why the contract renewal is for one year only. Wilson's previous contracts or extensions, effective beginning July 2012, 2014 and 2016, were for two years each.
"Given the challenges and complexities that lie ahead, the Board feels a yearly review is in the best interest of those we are entrusted to advocate for - the students of Bulloch County," continued Wagner's answer on behalf of the board.
"Additionally, the one-year contract is consistent with principal and other administrator contracts in the district," the statement concluded.
Wilson is in his 22nd year as a Bulloch County school system staff member. A certified public accountant whose degrees include a Master of Business Administration, he started as the system's finance director, the title was changed to chief financial officer, and he was named an assistant superintendent before the board hired him as superintendent of schools almost five and half years ago.
In his first contract in 2012, the board required Wilson to obtain a non-provisional education leadership certificate within two years. After fulfilling that the first year, he attained a six-year specialist's degree in educational leadership from Georgia Southern University. Now he has advanced his certification from the board-required L5 to a professional L6 leadership certificate.
Goals the board set for Wilson in the two previous contract reviews are "well in place," according to the first statement Wagner provided. These included establishing a school funding model, advancing school improvement planning and progress checks, establishing PLCs, improving minority recruitment efforts and managing the process to continue the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
In the previous meeting, Nov. 9, Wagner announced "board directives" Wilson is expected to lead in achieving for 2017-18. These include improving school climate and district morale and implementing a diversity recruitment plan, as well as furthering work on PLCs and school improvement plans. All of this fits within the school system's 2015-2020 strategic plan.
Might have been 5-3
Although Martin cast the one "no" vote, the two members who were not present by that time later indicated that she was not alone in opposing the contract extension.
"I had no problem with the one-year contract. We decided that a month or more ago," Martin said Saturday. "My reason for voting ‘no' was shared in a closed, executive session."
In a further comment, she alluded to concerns about procedures for dismissal of school system employees and about communications among the staff.
"Concerns I've noted in dismissal procedures and communications will be addressed," Martin said. "I am pleased with the opportunity to work with the board and the superintendent another year to continue improving the progress of all students."
Hill, who left during the closed session, would have voted "no" if he had remained, he said Friday. But he left thinking the board would discuss the matter further and not vote Thursday night, he said.
"In deep regards I am disappointed in the decision of a split board," Hill said in an email.
He said he felt that some members were trying "to proxy the vote" by intimidating other members "by asking many questions as well as decided to rush the vote while all were not present."
Hill said he appreciates that Wilson, with his financial background, has placed the school system on stronger financial footing, but thinks that someone with more experience as an educator is needed now.
"Mr. Wilson has shown some progress," Hill said. "However, there are many other concerns that need to be addressed such as, minority recruitment and retention that has been swept down the road for the past several years."
Maurice Hill's concerns
Hill went on to assert that the district under Wilson "does not have proven success," that school administrators feel they cannot speak or express themselves openly, and that "many mentoring groups as well as others have been blocked from working along with our school district due to the fact of just not wanting to be bothered or concerned with.
"We need to form a supportive as well as collaborated team to improve the needs of our district and community needs," Hill concluded.
He also questioned the need for a consultant in Bigwood's role, suggesting this should be the work of a superintendent instead.
Martin and Hill are the two African-American members of the eight-member elected board. Some of Hill's expressed concerns, especially those with minority representation among the faculty and staff and with student achievement, also were stated by leaders of the Bulloch County Branch of the NAACP, which voted in June to oppose renewal of Wilson's contract.
The local NAACP has been calling for improvement in the schools' recruitment and retention of minority employees for years. But the branch's June vote followed the May resignation of Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mary Felton, then the school system's highest-ranking black employee, after she was not offered a contract renewal for this academic year, for which Wilson declined to state a reason publicly.
Phoned Saturday afternoon, Sparks confirmed that he had a respiratory illness including bronchitis and a touch of pneumonia, but said he would have remained at the meeting if he had known there would be a vote on the contract.
Sparks at first said he would prefer not to say how he voted, but then answered.
"I just felt like we needed a change, and I was going to vote ‘no,'" he said.
Making the best
Interviewed Friday, Wilson acknowledged that he would have preferred unanimous support from the board and a longer contract, but declined to say whether he would be exploring other options in the year ahead.
"As to what the future holds, I don't know," Wilson said. "We'll just have to see where everything goes. Right now we've got some support to move forward, so we'll make the best of that."
In recent months, he has commented publicly on the existence of divisions in the community, reflected in the board's previous debate on the diversity initiative.
"Listen, I understand that hurts people that that kind of strife exists in this community, but I think that's where we will just have to continue working together and being patient with each other and trying to do the right things on behalf of the children," he said.
"I appreciate the opportunity to serve the people of this community and the employees of this district, and I appreciate the support and confidence of the board," Wilson added. "It's just an honor to be in this community and have this opportunity for service."