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COLUMN: Why tonight’s school board forum won’t include all eight candidates

There was a lot of work behind the scenes to try to get all eight school board candidates to participate in Tuesday night’s forum. In an attempt at complete transparency, I wanted to write this column to go into detail on some of those discussions.

First, for anyone catching up, we reported in Friday’s newspaper that the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce would be hosting a candidate forum, which is taking place Tuesday night. In that same story, we reported that candidates endorsed by TRACER would not be there, and TRACER commented why it wasn’t attending.

In our weekend edition, we wrote an editorial saying that all candidates should take part in the forum. It was posted on our website on Friday at lunch, with the point being that anyone who didn’t take part would likely be at a disadvantage because they couldn’t share their platform. Also, the editorial urged both the chamber and TRACER to work out a compromise.

Friday afternoon my phone started ringing off the hook with calls. The newspaper had been a third-party observer up to that point, with our only commitment being to stream the forum on our Facebook page, which has 30,000 followers. Of course, we also planned to write a story on the forum too. We had agreed to stream the forum a month ago, when the chamber first started trying to plan it. Obviously, we never expected some candidates not to take part.

To summarize my phone calls Friday, TRACER asked if the newspaper would host its own forum, as several people affiliated with that group said they would feel more comfortable with the LDN doing it, rather than the chamber.

With that in mind, on Monday, I talked to Connie Hensler at the chamber and offered the idea of me serving as the moderator for the forum. My thinking was this: The chamber has been hosting candidate forums for years, while the LDN has not hosted one (at least not recently) and we’re running out of time before June 9. I wanted to partner with both sides to try to have one forum where all candidates participated, rather than two where only select candidates might attend each.

Connie thought that was a good idea, and together, we spent the afternoon talking to people affiliated with TRACER about whether that might change things.

After several phone calls and much discussion, the answer was no.

The TRACER folks we talked to said they want a face-to-face forum — and frankly, so does everyone I’ve talked to — but the chamber is following the guidelines from the governor’s office. While technically the math works to keep 10 people in the building if you wanted to invite only the candidates, camera person and moderator, it’s difficult to imagine that another body (or more) isn’t needed somewhere for technical issues or other problems.

The chamber, understandably, wants to follow the guidelines, and when you consider the implications COVID-19 has had on the world, it’s easy to understand why. TRACER’s spokesperson, Bill Gregory, was actually quoted in a LDN story that I wrote just a few days ago saying that the group wanted to abide by the governor’s guidelines for limiting gathering to 10 or fewer people as well.

TRACER also said several of its candidates have poor internet service at home. That’s an understandable concern. I offered up the newspaper office, so that they would have access to high-speed internet and a private space to participate in the Zoom call. I was asked if all four TRACER candidates could use one computer and one office together at the LDN. I told them that would be fine. Connie offered up an office at the chamber.

But TRACER still said no.

I’ve said this several times to people in the community, and I don’t mind sharing it here: Do I blame TRACER for having some apprehension about participating in a forum where members of the board have openly campaigned for their opposition? Of course, I don’t. I think it’s fair to say anyone would have questions about that, even if chamber leadership doesn’t speak for the chamber overall.

However, those differences can be worked out. I have no reason to believe the forum won’t be completely fair, and if I did, I would’ve never offered to have any role in it.

I also keep hearing from TRACER candidates that they are just endorsed by TRACER, and that they aren’t a voting bloc and aren’t working together on everything. I understand their concerns when the community feels that way, especially if they don’t intend to vote as a bloc. Forums like Tuesday night’s are a chance for the candidates to differentiate themselves from one another. But when push comes to shove, they appear to be making decisions together. At least in my discussions, there was never a question as to whether one or two TRACER candidates might show up tonight. It was either all or none, which adds to the perception the community has about their group-think mentality, whether it’s true or not.

I’ll also say again that our staff has talked to every school board candidate for preview stories on the local races, and all of those interviews went well. All eight, TRACER included. I personally wrote two of those stories and I enjoyed talking to Nick Simpson and Tommy Callaway, as I did Cathy Hunt and Brandon Brooks. All four have some interesting ideas on the state of the school system and ideas for improving our test scores.

With that said, in regard to this forum it’s clear to me that the chamber has gone above and beyond to try to ensure all candidates participated by answering questions, responding to conspiracies and trying to be understanding. The newspaper, realizing its place in the discussion, has done all it can to make it happen as well.

In my opinion, the chamber, and this newspaper, have bent over backward in an attempt to accommodate each school board candidate’s requests to participate in the forum, and TRACER is the only reason TRACER isn’t participating, which is unfortunate for people who want to hear their platform.