Buford board tries to close book on racist recording

The Buford City Schools Board of Education tried to close a chapter in its recent rocky history, but a skeptical crowd at a meeting this week made it clear there are old wounds that need to heal.

Those wounds were inflamed when an audio recording emerged last month in which someone said to be former Superintendent Geye Hamby used racial slurs repeatedly. Hamby was initially placed on administrative leave, then resigned, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the recordings. The speaker refers to African-Americans as “deadbeat (n-word)” and even speaks of wanting to kill black construction workers who had angered him. Board Chairman Phillip Beard acknowledged later that another voice on the recording is his, but suggested it could be spliced-in snippets from other conversations.

During an executive session at its meeting Monday night, the board approved its final payment to Hamby, $17,999.99 that included vacation pay and deducted an overpayment of salary.

“We don’t owe him one more dime,” said Beard. “We don’t owe severance or anything else — just what is due to him.”

That step, and others the board announced, didn’t appease the audience of about 75, and one tense moment in the meeting brought some name-calling of its own.

“It’s a shame that we had to have this to happen to get a diversity council,” said Patrick Ganntt. “This stuff has been going on for a long time. The reason why this place wasn’t full before last month is because we trusted you. How you gain trust back is to include us.”

Beard said in order to prove that the hunt for the next superintendent will include diverse candidates and community involvement, the board has asked former Superintendent Beauty Baldwin to head the search committee. Baldwin was the first black female superintendent in Gwinnett County and in the state.

“We have put the word out everywhere and we’ve gone nationwide for a new superintendent,” said Beard. “The search committee will be given the task of interviewing and then bringing maybe the top three candidates to the board.”

The board also finalized the contract for former Assistant Superintendent Joy Davis, who will be interim superintendent. According to board documents, she will be paid a portion of an annual salary of $25o,000 for 90 days. That comes to $62,500. Because she’s retired from the school system, she’ll have to take a drastic pay cut if a replacement isn’t found by then.

After the three months, she won’t be allowed to make more than 49 percent of her last salary as a school system employee, according to Beard. That was $200,000 a year. When asked if she’d apply for the permanent position, Davis laughed.

“No sir,” she said. “I’m enjoying retirement too much.”

Michelle Edwards wondered why an interim superintendent was needed when there’s already an assistant superintendent who should be able to step into the role, and went on to complain that she felt the board was playing fast and loose with taxpayer dollars. She was concerned that a payment to Hamby, plus salaries for an interim superintendent and an assistant superintendent were more than a small district should be paying.

Beard ripped a document containing the breakdown of Hamby’s final payment from his binder and walked over to Edwards.

“He got what he earned up to that day,” he said as he thrust the paper at her. The force of that movement caused a ripple in the crowd.

“Don’t throw that at me like a dog!” she shouted at Beard as she headed to her seat. “You’re a racist!”

When the crowd began to admonish Edwards for naming-calling, she fired back, “He doesn’t know how to talk to anyone,” and said to Beard, “You’re a racist! You’re a racist cracker!”

Although cooler heads prevailed after that incident, those in attendance still wanted the board to do more.

Ben Hayes, whose videotaped reprimand of the board at August’s meeting became a local YouTube sensation, had sent a letter to the board email address and to Bruce Fricks, the only board member with a personal email address listed on the school system website.

“Setting up an email address for the board was a step in the right direction,” he wrote, “and I was glad to see it. However, in the age of transparency, I would like to ask when each board member will have their own separate email addresses … I want to know what each individual thinks and why, not some scripted response from ‘the group.’ ”

In response, Fricks agreed that the board needs to do more and vowed that changes are in the works.

One of those is hiring a diversity and inclusion program manager. Although half of her work day will be classroom instruction, Lacrecia Smith will be primarily responsible for developing and implementing a strategic plan for diversity, inclusion and equity.

A consultant provided “an initial strategic assessment and recommended systemwide plan,” she said. “There’s much more work to be done and I look forward to doing so.”

But some residents aren’t convinced those steps are enough.

James “Jim” Taylor, president of Black Men United for Children & Humanity, presented a letter from the civil rights organization that asked Beard to step down.

Part of it read, “His presence on this board continues to serve as a constant reminder of how his silence made him complicit and just as guilty as Hamby. Our children deserve leadership that encompasses honesty and integrity.”

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