Trust in clerk’s office, future of education all the buzz at forum

Published 12:13 pm Friday, October 31, 2014

Rebuilding trust in the circuit court system and how to handle sweeping changes on the federal and local level in public education took center stage at a forum Thursday for candidates in local races on Tuesday’s election ballot.

Questions on hiring and accounting practices in the circuit clerk’s office from about 100 people who nearly packed the circuit courtroom drew no-brainer responses from five who vie for the office until next year’s election cycle.

“I will not hire relatives and I will continue to live in Warren County,” interim clerk Greg Peltz said during about two hours of q-and-a that was a mix of edgy current issues and lightweight queries on job function. “We’re making changes daily — from processing Supreme Court appeals to collecting fines at the front counter.”

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The race for clerk is one of two special elections called by the county to fill vacancies. County supervisors appointed Peltz in May after jailed ex-clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree was removed from office. A second special-called race is for constable in the central district, where appointed incumbent Troy Kimble faces Mario Grady to succeed the late Randy Naylor. Winners of a plurality of the vote in each will hold the office through next year’s election cycle, when they may face voters again.

Jan Hyland Daigre, a former school board member who finished second to Palmertree in the 2011 elections and applied for the job along with Peltz, talked up the trust issue in light of the scandals that ended the last administration.

“No, I would not hire relatives,” Daigre said. “There are so many important issues, from accounting, to customer service, to records management. We’ve got a lot of changes to make in the circuit clerk’s office.”

Robert Donohue, a former Vicksburg police officer making his first bid for public office, tied their answers together into a question for the attendees.

“I wouldn’t hire relatives if I had them around here to hire,” he said. “We’re all going to say the same thing. But, who do you trust to make the smartest changes”

A. Sharonda Taylor, a paralegal for the state Department of Human Services, talked up her experience working around the court system, saying she wanted people “to feel comfortable when you come to the front office.” John Shorter, chair of the Warren County Democratic Executive Committee and frequent candidate for local office, touted his acumen with budgets in the Navy and as a contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“When you have to keep records manually, you’ve done something,” Shorter said.

Kimble and Grady said they’d juggle the job of constable, which delivers justice court summonses, with that of being a law enforcement officer.

Circuit Court Judge M. James Chaney, who faces a challenge for his Subdistrict 2 seat on the 9th Circuit bench from justice court judge Eddie Woods, touted a long resume of community involvement even before the first policy-related question.

“I learned how to treat people with dignity and respect through the schools, my church and my family,” Chaney said. “And I want you to know there is no legal requirement that a judge be an active church member, be in a civic club, rebuild the Waltersville playground after the flood, help out with Habitat for Humanity, ring the bell for Salvation Army. But I want you to know it’s important to me.”

Woods and Chaney favored new state law locking in minimum sentences for criminal defendants. It requires at least 50 percent of a sentence be served for violent offenders and 25 percent for non-violent offenses.

Four candidates for seats in Districts 3 and 4 on the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees were grilled on Common Core, classroom resources, start times for the 9,000-student district and whether they favor a single high school.

“We’ve been mandated by the State of Mississippi to implement Common Core for the future of our students,” District 4 Trustee Joe Loviza said, referring to the program of education standards in place in more than 40 states. Mississippi put the controversial standards in place this past year.

“Do I agree with 100 percent of it? No,” Loviza said. “But, a college prep curriculum is not going to make your child a living. We had 830 people with a degree that have entered Hinds Community College to get a job skill this year.”

Katrina Johnson, a substitute teacher who finished a strong second to Loviza in 2008, voiced mostly dissatisfaction with the new national standards but urged parents to get the most guidance from teachers they can.

“There’s parts I do and parts I don’t like,” Johnson said. “I don’t like my child having to draw a picture of a math problem to learn it. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing multiplication tables.”

District 3 Trustee Jim Stirgus Jr. and challenger Dr. John Walls, a former assistant superintendent for VWSD, each agreed with the need for the uniform standards, stressing the state’s consistently low ratings in education.

The two men differed on how school start times were put in place this year. A 7:25 a.m. start time for elementary schools and an 8:15 start time for high schools passed the school board in June on a 3-0 vote. Stirgus and fellow board member Alonzo Stevens were absent for the vote.

“I understand the basics of research, but I also have to have some common sense,” Walls said in a critique of how much notification parents got before the change. Stirgus matter-of-factly agreed parents should have been consulted more before the vote.

Johnson called the later start time “an inconsiderate move to just disregard family schedules.” Loviza stood by his vote, terming it a “data-driven” decision.

Walls deferred to popular opinion in the district on the issue of combining Vicksburg and Warren Central high schools if elected. Stirgus said sports was too much of a prevailing central theme on the issue instead of academics, hence his apprehension.

“I’m going to answer that question politically correct,” Walls told the audience. “I will support whatever the constituents of the district want. That’s my answer.”

“We need to go beyond the sports and do better academically,” Stirgus said, adding the district had repeated its D grade on recent state evaluations. “With that, the sports will come.”

Johnson said the topic was one of cultural confusion for parents.

“It didn’t work at Vicksburg and Warren Central Intermediate when we had all the fifth and sixth grades together,” she said. “I think it’s more an issue for the parents…what will we have? A Viking-Gator?”

Loviza also said he opposes a single high school, adding “you lose your identity in a big high school. You know your fellow classmates (in a small high school).”

Two offices will appear unopposed this year, that of 9th Circuit Subdistrict 1 judge and 9th Chancery Court Judge. Incumbents Isadore Patrick and Vicki Roach Barnes did not draw opposition this year.

Thursday’s forum was organized by the Vicksburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, First Mississippi Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Vicksburg Branch of the NAACP.