OUR VIEW: All candidates should participate in school board forum

Published 11:56 am Friday, May 8, 2020

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In Friday’s newspaper, we reported that the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce is hosting a candidate forum for school board candidates.

Unfortunately, that story also included the news that half of the school board candidates aren’t planning to participate, as all of the candidates backed by TRACER don’t plan to attend.

Frankly, we’re tired of describing the divisive nature of this race, where voters must select between two different “sides.” It shouldn’t be that way, but it’s difficult not to when the lines have been drawn so clearly in the sand.

It’s almost as if this school board election has turned into a proverbial four-on-four basketball game. We’re not sure who’s winning, but we sure as heck know who’s losing when there’s not full participation in a forum to distinguish between the candidates — the people of Troup County and the children in our school system.

TRACER said it feels uncomfortable doing a debate led by the chamber, as a couple of its candidates said they had participated in similar, chamber-led forums before and didn’t feel they were fair.

We can’t speak to those elections because, as we understand it, they were many years ago, but the newspaper’s leadership has been in place for several years and has covered many chamber forums. From our perspective, we’ve seen nothing out of line, as candidates were asked the exact same question and were given the same amount of time to answer.

It should also be noted that the chamber is under completely new leadership since its last candidate forum. Connie Hensler has been the chamber president long enough to have a cup of coffee and (hopefully) move into her office. If there were controversial practices before, it shouldn’t be held against Hensler and the chamber administration in place now.

And before the paper becomes the center of a TRACER-Facebook page rant, we want to be clear: We have been working on stories on every local race — school board and others — and to this point, we’ve had no issues with TRACER candidates, or any school board candidates, in answering our questions. There are only a couple of those interviews left for the school board, and everyone has been accommodating and willing to talk to us to talk about their platform and answer tough questions about the state of the Troup County School System. We’ve been impressed with answers from candidates from both sides, and as we’ve said many times, it’s a good thing that so many people have taken an interest in the future of our school system.

As much as we hope those stories are helping voters decide who they want to vote for, nothing can take the place of a forum, where both candidates get a chance to stand in front of a live audience (even a virtual one) and respond to questions.

We’ve talked to every candidate at some point since they’ve announced their candidacy and although their platforms are different, you’ll hear some of the same lines from everyone. Every single candidate says our teachers need more support. School board candidates (and frankly all candidates) love to shout that from the rooftops. After all, who in the world would ever disagree that our underpaid, underappreciated teachers need more pay?

Every candidate also said our school system needs to continue to improve. Everyone in Troup County feels that way.

Voters need to know the issues that differentiate candidates. They need to see current school board members answer for their decisions — good and bad — and potential school board members put in previous situations to see how they would’ve responded. How would TRACER candidates have handled the COVID-19 crisis differently, if at all? How would they have voted when it came time to vote on the gymnasiums at LaGrange and Troup? Our stories hopefully answer the second question, but our point remains the same — there are tough questions that should be answered from both sides.

This newspaper always works extremely hard to be as unbiased and fair as possible in reporting all issues, including this election, where everyone has an opinion. We’ve made it clear to TRACER that we plan to cover the forum, as every candidate was invited to participate. If it was the other way around and only TRACER candidates had agreed to attend, we would do the same. It was agreed upon weeks ago that the LDN would stream it on Facebook, as, at the time, we had no reason to believe anyone would turn down the invitation.

We don’t plan to change those plans, as all eight candidates have the same opportunity to participate or sit it out.

With that said, it’s impossible for us to give TRACER’s opinion on the issues discussed Tuesday night if those candidates don’t show up for the forum. Instead of a chance for voters to hear from both sides, the stage will be cleared for the incumbents and Ferrell Blair to state their case without any opposition. For the sports fans reading, it’s the equivalent to a Heisman Trophy candidate playing a major primetime game near the end of the season — the lights are on, and there’s no one else to get in the way.

We strongly recommend that TRACER reconsiders its stance on this forum. We understand some apprehensiveness regarding the format, and we can even somewhat understand wanting to avoid missteps that threw off previous campaigns.

We also can’t speak for the chamber of commerce — nor is it our place — but it appears the chamber is willing to do whatever it can, within reason, to help alleviate those concerns.

The truth is that incumbents typically have a leg up in any political race, as they already have the name recognition and can point to things they’ve accomplished while in office. Challengers need to get in front of people, spread their message and get voters on board.

Maybe the TRACER candidates believe their 1,800-follower Facebook group and other support translates to enough votes to win all four seats. They might be right, but we’d be willing to guess that the general public knows less about their campaigns than the platforms of their opponents. When you add in the obstacle of COVID-19, which makes it almost impossible for old fashioned, door-to-door campaigning, we’re guessing there’s a lot of people out there that want to hear more from both sides.

It’s also important to remember that we reported last week that only three absentee ballots had been cast so far. While we’re sure that number has increased, it’s clear that nearly every voter has hung onto their ballots as the local races develop. We’re glad that’s the case, as we’re still a month out from election day, and voters should wait to hear more.

We’re guessing there’s a way for the two sides to work this out, even if TRACER has said it firmly doesn’t plan to participate. We’re not in favor of a forum where candidates get to study questions beforehand, defeating the purpose of being on the spot and having to form an answer on an important topic quickly.

However, since we’re to the point of grasping at straws to try to make this happen, here’s an idea: What if each side was given a list of 25 possible questions that could be asked during the forum? To determine the question asked, the chamber could have an outside party mix them up 1 to 25 — even on camera if needed — and then have candidates from each side take turns picking a random number. Whatever number was determined would be the question asked, until the forum ran out of time.

And as for concerns about the virtual presentation, to use another sports analogy, both sides are playing on the same field. No one wants to do this forum on Zoom, just like none of us have wanted to be sheltered in our homes for the last few months. It’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and we’re all making the best of it.

We cannot overstate the importance of this election for the school system. Regardless of how you feel about this race and whether you support the status quo or the TRACER campaigns, you should want to see a candidate forum where everyone participates. That’s in the best interest of all candidates. TRACER should reconsider its stance, work with the chamber on overcoming its concerns and participate in Tuesday night’s forum.