SYLACAUGA – At a meeting Wednesday morning, the City Council voted 3-2 to appoint Melissa Garris to a five-year term on the Board of Education beginning in June.
Councilman Shannon Darby nominated candidate Jesse Cleveland, and Councilman Billy Carden nominated Garris to fill the expiring term of current BOE member Tracey Allen, who did not reapply.
Carden, Councilman Joe Hogan and Council President Rocky Lucas voted in favor of Garris, while Darby and Councilman Tom Roberts voted in favor of Cleveland.
Garris said she is “excited and happy to be able to serve the city and help make our schools the best they can be in the future.” She credits a passion for children as her reason for applying, adding that she “want(s) to be able to make sure we provide great schooling for all of our kids.”
The council interviewed Garris, Cleveland and a third applicant, Scott Smith, early this month, and called Garris and Cleveland back for a second interview May 13.
Garris, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering, is senior systems architect for a life insurance company and has experience as a software engineer and programmer. She has two children in the city school system, is a member of PTO, Arts Council, Boy Scouts of America, Coosa Valley Baptist Association VBS training team and is heavily involved with youth and children’s activities at First Baptist Church of Sylacauga.
A former Sylacauga mayor, Cleveland has been a principal and teacher in Sylacauga schools and is currently Head Start director in Talladega. He spent 33 years as a state specialist for AdvancED, a school accreditation agency, and served two terms as a Board of Trustees member for Alabama A&M University, among other leadership positions.
Lucas said he feels Garris “is a better fit at this time” for the BOE because she brings new ideas.
“We’ve got a new superintendent coming in, and it might be the fact that she is a breath of fresh air and she has new ideas that haven’t been milled over and over, and I think that’s what it takes,” he said. “What you’re seeing in the city of Sylacauga is a change to a new way of thinking. It was shown with five new councilmen, a new mayor, and now a new superintendent. If we do not change our way of thinking, we will remain stagnant as a city, so that was the main objective – to get new ideas that haven’t been discovered yet.”
Cleveland said he is not bitter about the council’s choice, but is “very disappointed about the character of the decision makers in our city,” adding that he felt “a lot of unfairness took place” during the selection process.
“First of all, to my knowledge, we started out with three candidates, and at the end of the first interviews, it was obvious who would be selected,” he said. “Then another meeting was called because, as I was told, the first candidate wasn’t treated fairly and they wanted to talk more, so I came for a second interview.”
Cleveland said he also learned one councilman met separately with Garris, but did not afford him the same opportunity. Additionally, he said he “had one councilman tell me I had their support, and that didn’t happen at all. In fact, he’s the one who nominated the other person.”
Hogan said the proposal for a second interview with Cleveland and Garris was initially his idea because he felt “we owed (Garris) another interview” after their first round of questions lacked substance. The council pre-prepared questions for the second interviews and asked each candidate the same ones. Also, Hogan said he did briefly talk with Garris before Wednesday’s meeting “just to make sure she knew the magnitude of what she’s applying for,” but not to clarify her qualifications. “It had nothing to do with my appointment,” he said, adding that he received no input from any current BOE members on the issue.
What swayed Hogan’s vote, he said, was input from community members. About 60 people, many of whom are educators, contacted him since Saturday expressing support for Garris, he said.
“Ultimately, I’m their voice,” Hogan said. “If the majority of people say, ‘I want Mrs. Garris?’ is that not why I was elected? I don’t know what the right vote was, but I feel like I did my job today, and my job is to represent the people.”
During a council work session preceding Wednesday’s meeting, Darby expressed his support for Cleveland.
“I don’t have any children in the school system, but you all do, and I’d rather credentials speak a lot,” Darby said. “If you want the right person with the right credentials in a spot, you would ask yourself, what do I want for my child? Do I want someone that’s very, very qualified, or do I want somebody that just qualified?”
Roberts said “there’s going to come times when we just agree or don’t agree, and this is too important. I don’t want to be asked by people, ‘Why did you vote one way?’ And the answer be, ‘Because everybody else wanted it.’”
Also prior to the meeting, Carden told the council their choice affects people tomorrow, next year and five years from now, and he hoped that “five years down the road, we can say we made the right decision.”
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.