Challengers cite need for 'new blood' on Sullivan school board

Rick Wagner • Jul 10, 2012 at 10:41 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — “New blood” and incumbents duked it out in Tuesday night’s Sullivan County Board of Education candidates forum held at Sullivan Central High School.

However, on many issues the incumbents and challengers seeking four-year terms agreed or had complementary opinions during the hour-and-a-half forum, and many of the candidates said it was a good thing that all four seats up for grabs in the Aug. 2 election have competition for the first time in years.

The event drew about 100 people, including the nine participants and members of the Sullivan Central PTSA that sponsored the countywide forum for Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7. The other three seats will be up for election in two years.

District 7 challenger Michael Hughes from the Bluff City area in his closing remarks said the nine were a “large group of good candidates” but went on to say that in his race with eight-year incumbent Betty Combs of Bluff City, “I think it’s time to change. I think it’s time on this board for new blood.”

Combs, vice chairwoman of the board, was next in line to speak and shot back, “I disagree. I don’t think we need any new blood on this board. The blood is fine.”

Her comment drew laughter from the crowd.

She cited her work in visiting all six schools in her greater Bluff City area and said she takes and returns all phone calls and has attended all four high school graduations the past few years.

Hughes emphasized what he called a need to make the public feel more welcome to attend and speak up at school board meetings.

In the three-way District 5 race, eight-year member and board Chairman Ron Smith of the Piney Flats/Blountville area said no matter who wins, “you are one voice, one vote on a board of seven people.”

However, Anissa Lyttle, from Indian Springs and one of Smith’s two challengers, said all BOE incumbents facing competitive races for the first time in three decades shows change is in the air.

“I think we are looking for a new perspective on things and some new blood — sorry, Mrs. Combs,” Lyttle said.

The other District 5 challenger, Randall Jones of Indian Springs, said he is not running against anybody but for the position. He said the county school system needs to “get rid of smoke and mirrors” in budget discussions and lay things on the table for all to see.

In District 3, 28-year incumbent Jim Kiss of Bloomingdale said having children who have gone through the county school system and grandchildren and great-grandchildren “tells you I am pretty well interested in education.”

All candidates have or have had children or grandchildren in the county school system.

Challenger Todd Broughton of Bloomingdale said “students are what’s important” and called for better communication between the school system and parents.

And in District 1, challenger Heather Price of Sullivan Gardens called for better communication between the school board and teachers.

“I plan on being an on-site presence in the schools,” Price said.

District 1 incumbent Jack Bales of the Sullivan Gardens area has been on the board for 20 years and said the contested races are positive for the communities. He said the BOE needs public support for additional education funding.

Before the meeting, some held signs in the school parking lot decrying the board’s decision late last month to rezone more than 40 students in the Orebank community from Ketron Elementary School, which feeds into North Middle and North High schools, to Central Heights Elementary, which feeds into Central.

The board’s called meeting agenda for 1 p.m. Thursday in the central office in Blountville includes a discussion and possible reconsideration of the matter.

Kiss, who opposed the decision, said he hopes to get it repealed.

Broughton said parents should have been better informed on the matter before the board voted on it.

A similar rezoning proposal shifting students from Weaver to Emmett elementary schools in the Sullivan East High zone failed at the same meeting.

Broughton works for Eastman Chemical Co., while Kiss retired from there.

Price is a stay-at-home mom and president of the Sullivan Elementary PTA, while Bales is a retired Eastman chemical engineer.

Smith is retired from student services at Northeast State Community College, while Jones is a 38-year educator who retired from the Bristol school system as an assistant director and worked in the Kingsport system. Lyttle worked five years for the Kingsport system and more than 15 years in nonprofit management heading New Clothes for Kids.

Combs is a 35-year retired fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, while Hughes is a Teamsters union representative for Virginia UPS workers.

Early voting begins Thursday and runs through July 29, although not every day. Go to the Sullivan County Election Commission Web site at www.scelect.org/elections.html for more information on the election.

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