The forum at Harrison High School was originally scheduled for just Republican challenger Brad Wheeler, but after a challenge from incumbent Democrat Alison Bartlett, separate back-to-back one-hour meetings were scheduled. But 15 minutes into Wheeler’s “meet and greet,” Bartlett, who had never met Wheeler, walked in and took a seat with the 30 other attendees in the school library.
Toward the end of the meeting, Wheeler finally acknowledged Bartlett, who by then had been joined by state Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell).
“Thanks for coming,” Wheeler said.
Bartlett, who the Legislature moved to a more-Republican-leaning west central Cobb district after the 2010 Census, has accused Wheeler of dodging her and refusing to appear with her at candidate forums. Before Sunday’s forum, Wheeler said the two simply have a different approach.
“I go around the community and talk to people and get their input,” he said. “When you go to these debates and forums, there’s not a lot of people. I’m trying to build consensus and not put on a show and divide people. I wonder why a school board chair wants to debate an upstart rookie. If I were that, I’d run on my record.”
Wheeler said he has also made other commitments to campaign supporters that have prevented him from attending other scheduled forums.
“I guess you could say I’m more traditional,” he said. “I think the voters in west Cobb are tired of drama. They want people to work to get things done.”
After addressing residents, Bartlett dismissed Wheeler’s claims about the forums.
“I did a forum with (Rep.) Ed Setzler and (Georgia PTA Legislative Chair) Karen Hallacy, there was no drama,” Bartlett said, referring to a forum she had on the state charter schools amendment at Hillgrove High School last week. “It’s not like a presidential debate. There’s no getting in your face. They ask my point of view and your point of view, and we respect each other’s point of view.”
Wheeler and Bartlett showed relative agreement on the most contentious issue currently in education, the charter schools amendment that is on the same Nov. 6 ballot as their contest. If passed, Amendment 1 would allow a state commission to create charter schools over the objection of local school boards.
Wheeler said the amendment would add another layer of bureaucracy.
“I’m not opposed to charter schools, I’m opposed to this amendment,” he said.
Wheeler was asked what parents should do if the amendment isn’t passed and they aren’t happy with Cobb schools.
“You can go to private schools, you can move,” he said. “In this system, there are charter schools that are available.”
Bartlett said she has several concerns with charter schools including existing private schools seeking to gain charter status and out of state for-profit companies coming in and running the schools.
“Why would a big for-profit want to come into Georgia to start up a charter school? To make money,” she said. “I’m not against making money, but it takes money from public schools.”
Wheeler said it is too soon to determine whether or not he supports the projects on the planned SPLOST IV, which would collect $717.8 million over 5 years.
“Until you have the definite final pieces of what that is, you’re just talking conjecture,” he said. “I think it will be needed, but it needs to be needs, not wants. The voters need to spell out what they want.”
Bartlett said the SPLOST would address some, but not all, of the issues the district has with outdated or decaying facilities.
“SPLOST IV is not about building new schools, SPLOST IV is about we have $1.2 billion in assets that we have not maintained,” she said.
Attendees at Sunday’s meeting were initially told that Wheeler would meet with them in the library at 5 p.m., then they would have to go down the hall to the auditorium to see Bartlett’s forum at 6. But at the end of Wheeler’s time she announced that they could stay in place, and she would hold her meeting in the library.
But about half the audience departed anyway at the end of Wheeler’s presentation. Bartlett said she wasn’t concerned about the people who left.
“They’d already made up their minds,” she said.
The twist was just the latest in setting up the forum.
After originally deciding to host two separate forums for Bartlett and Wheeler the Harrison Parent-Teacher Association backtracked and allowed both to attend one candidate forum Sunday night.
A candidate forum for Wheeler was scheduled for between 5 and 7 p.m. Sunday at Harrison and a second for just Bartlett on Tuesday at Lost Mountain Middle School on Tuesday.
However, that changed and the two were merged into one.
Bartlett, who has never met Wheeler before, said she was pleased with the change.
“I think it gives people a chance to see both of us, ask both of us the same questions and get the response so they can compare apples to apples,” she said.
Prior to learning that the forums would be merged, Bartlett contacted Board Attorney Clem Doyle and Cobb Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa about the legality of the PTA hosting a forum and only allowing her to attend one of them. She said it was unfair that the school district’s attorneys were requiring that forums on the charter schools amendment hosted at campuses have both sides of the issue represented, but the district wasn’t using the same standards for candidate forums.
“Holding PTA candidate forums on different nights, at different schools, with different voters in attendance is not ‘equal opportunity’ but in fact is discrimination,” Bartlett wrote Hinojosa. “Mr. Wheeler was given an opportunity to attend both forums but I was only invited to one. What is also shocking is Harrison PTA’s failure to follow PTA regulations outlined in the ‘Georgia PTA Do’s and Don’ts of PTA During Elections’ which states ‘PTA may sponsor political forums or candidate meet-and-greet events. ALL candidates for the specific office MUST be invited to participate and each candidate given equal time to speak. A candidate invited but not attending will not invalidate the PTA activity.’ Not only I have not been invited to the Harrison Candidate Forum, the District has formally denied me access to voters at the Sunday Harrison Forum.”
At the forum, Bartlett said the ordeal was a simple misunderstanding and the PTSA shouldn’t be blamed.
Bartlett said after the forum that she wanted to sit in on Wheeler’s portion of the meeting because she wanted to hear what he had to say. She was surprised that Wheeler, a retired Cobb Schools administrator, did not know more about issues like benchmark testing, curriculum and development.
“Several of his statements were inaccurate,” she said.
Harrison parent Mellanie Chorney said she is currently represented by retiring board member Lynnda Eagle, but will be moved into Post 7 starting next year. Although she normally votes Republican, Chorney is pleased with the amount of time Bartlett spends talking with constituents.
“I’ve been to school board meetings in the past, and she’s such a dynamic person,” Chorney said of Bartlett. “At this point, I don’t want somebody with a steep learning curve.”