Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Commission chooses Gaines

In front of a capacity crowd at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Monday, Jan. 5, the Unicoi County Commission voted 5-4 to nominate veteran educator Ruth Gaines to complete the unexpired term of the late Dwight Bennett on the Unicoi County Board of Education as a Third District representative.
Voting in favor of Gaines’ appointment to the school board were commissioners Marie Rice, Bridget Peters, Jason Harris, Gene Wilson and Kenneth Garland. Voting against Gaines were Loren Thomas, Glenn White, Walter Garland and John Mosley.
“You can’t replace Dwight Bennett,” Gaines said following the meeting. “He was a longtime public servant. He cannot be replaced, but I can try to step in and do what I consider to be right, legally right and morally right, for the best of the students in Unicoi County.”
When asked what her reaction was to the vote to appoint her, Gaines said she was “stunned.”
Gaines taught at Unicoi County High School for 35 years and currently serves as the president of the PTO at Rock Creek Elementary. This experience will help her bring a unique perspective to the board, she said.
“I think I can give the board an idea of what it is like to be in a classroom,” Gaines said. “Not just that I have been a teacher, but I am president of the PTO and I am a volunteer at Rock Creek. I was a parent in the system, I was a teacher, I’m a volunteer in the system and I’m a grandparent in the system, so I think I have a wealth of experience that I can be able to share with the board.”
Gaines was sworn in on Tuesday, Jan. 6, at the courthouse by Judge David Shults. She will attend her first work session of the school board on Wednesday, Jan. 7, at 5 p.m. and her first meeting on Thursday, Jan. 8, at 6 p.m. Both meetings will be held at the central office on Nolichucky Avenue in Erwin.
She will occupy Bennett’s seat until the next county general election, county attorney Doug Shults said during Monday’s meeting.
Bennett, who passed away on Nov. 25, won a seat on the school board during the August election and began serving on the board in September.
Gaines joins a school board made up of First District representatives Cathy Thomas and Garland “Bubba” Evely, Second District representatives Lisa White and Tyler Engle and Steve Willis – the other Third District representative.
Included on the agenda for the Jan. 8 school board meeting is a vote on whether or not to renew the contract of Director of Schools Denise Brown. With Gaines’ appointment on Jan. 5, the school board will vote on Brown’s contract with a full board.
Brown’s contract stipulates that the board must vote on her contract by Jan. 15.
When asked Monday if she knew how she would vote on Brown’s contract on Jan. 8, Gaines said she could not say at that time.
“I don’t know,” Gaines said. “I have done some research and will continue to do so.”
She also said that she knew the climate of the current school board was “political.” She said she believed her experience as an educator would help her face the challenges ahead.
“God will help me get through this because my faith and my prayers to God have taught me that I need to depend on him,” Gaines said. “I will also depend on advice from people. I will look up facts. I want to be a peacemaker. I want to try to bring factions together.
“That’s a big job, but I want to sit down like I did with my students and say, ‘Hey, now let’s talk this out. You see it this way and you see it this way. Can we not come to a compromise?’ So, I hope to be able to bring some experience to the board.”
• • •
Upon Bennett’s death, the responsibility of appointing someone from the Third District to fill his seat fell on the Unicoi County Commission to do so at its next regularly scheduled or special called meeting. This is stipulated in Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-202 (e)(1).
The commission typically meets in regular session on the fourth Monday of each month. Due to the Christmas holiday, the panel voted 7-2 to cancel its regularly scheduled Dec. 22 meeting during its November meeting. Commissioners John Mosley and Loren Thomas voted against canceling the meeting.
On Dec. 11, Commissioner Glenn White addressed the school board and asked the members to join him in requesting that the commission meet in a special called session to appoint someone to fill Bennett’s seat.
White told the school board that appointing a new member would “ensure equal representation on the board of education for all Unicoi countians.”
On Dec. 12, Lynch issued a press release which stated that the commission would not be called into a special session, but would consider appointing someone to fill Bennett’s seat during its regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 26.
“Normally filling this vacancy quickly would not even be considered necessary; however, the Unicoi County Board of Education is scheduled to meet Jan. 8, 2015 to vote on contract renewal for Director of Schools Denise Brown,” the press release said. “It has been rumored that this board was on course for a tie vote 3-3, which would essentially be a vote not to renew Director Brown’s contract.
“I would note that two county commissioners have a spouse serving on the school board and though there is nothing wrong with this legally, it has an air of conflict of interest, which can in fact be remedied by the reading of conflict of interest statement when a vote is taken on filling this vacancy,” the press release also said.
“Since this issue is obviously very politically charged, contentious, seems ripe with personal agendas and appears to be closely split, I think it would be in the best interest of the county commission, school board and the school system to either choose or start the process of choosing someone to fill that vacancy at the regular Unicoi County Commission session in January,” Lynch also said.
The commissioners with spouses serving on the school board are White and Thomas.
On Dec. 16, Thomas, who represents the First District, submitted a petition to Lynch’s office bearing the signatures of himself and four other commissioners requesting that Chairwoman Rice call the commission into a special called session prior to the school board meeting to vote on Brown’s contract.
Joining Thomas in signing the petition were commissioners Glenn White, John Mosley, Walter Garland and Bridget Peters. Mosley, Garland and Peters are the three Third District representatives on the commission.
During Monday’s meeting, Rice said she, Mayor Greg Lynch and county attorney Doug Shults began drafting the agenda for the called session after the petition was received. Public notice was given on Dec. 18 of the special session on Jan. 5. The public notice appeared in both The Johnson City Press and The Erwin Record.
• • •
In the weeks leading up to the Jan. 5 meeting, Gaines, Norman O’Dell and Tracy Moore submitted their names to be considered for Bennett’s vacant seat.
The vote that placed Gaines on the school board came after a two-hour meeting during which several citizens addressed the commission, as did Gaines, O’Dell and Moore. Some citizens expressed their support of a candidate, while others expressed support for Brown. Others, including local educators Angie Vaughn and Lindsay Bowman, asked the commission to keep Unicoi County’s students and teachers in mind when voting on Bennett’s replacement.
“We urge you to look at qualifications and vote on qualifications alone,” Vaughn said.
Doug Bowman, a former county commissioner, told the panel that Brown and the school system had submitted a balance budget to the commission for 12 consecutive years. He urged the commission to consider budgetary concerns when making a decision.
“They haven’t asked for money from the county,” Bowman said of the school system.
“… If it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
• • •
After hearing from citizens, Gaines, O’Dell and Moore were officially nominated by a member of the panel. Wilson nominated Gaines; Walter Garland nominated O’Dell; and Kenneth Garland nominated Tracy Moore.
The candidates were then given an opportunity to address the commission.
Gaines told the board she did not have an agenda in seeking to be appointed.
“I want to do what is best and only best for our children and our teachers and our county,” she said.
O’Dell ran for a seat on the school board during the August election, coming in third behind Bennett and Steve Willis. O’Dell told the commission that he had served on the school board from 1990-1994. He said he ran again and was seeking the appointment because he remains interested in the school system. He also said he was familiar with the school system’s budget process and policies.
“I believe I have things to offer that would help our school system,” he said.
Moore described himself as the “dark horse” of the trio seeking the appointment to Bennett’s seat. He said he has many years of experience with financial matters in the private sector.
“One thing I do bring to the table, first of all, is I bring honesty and I bring commitment and I bring a financial background,” Moore also said.
• • •
The commission chose to vote on each candidate individually by a roll call vote with each commissioner casting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote for each candidate. The first candidate to receive five votes – the majority of the 9-member board – would be appointed. It was decided that the panel would vote on the nominees in alphabetical order, starting with Gaines.
With five of the nine commissioners supporting Gaines, she received the appointment, thus the panel did not vote on either O’Dell or Moore.