Narissa Nelson kept a list of pros and cons on her refrigerator while trying to decide whether to throw her hat into a campaign for the contested District 4 seat on the Baldwin County Board of Education. Nelson said the list of pros kept growing, while the list of cons didn’t budge.
A practicing attorney and Foley business owner, Nelson is one of two candidates vying to replace Norm Moore on the board and represent the Foley High School feeder pattern. She will face former interim superintendent and longtime Baldwin County educator JaNay Dawson on the March 2016 ballot. Moore recently announced his intention to not seek re-election.
Calling herself a frequent critic of the school system’s push for an 8 mill tax increase via a failed referendum earlier this year, Nelson said if elected, she will work to restore a sense of transparency and trust between the board and the public.
“I criticized the board heavily because of the tax referendum,” Nelson said. “I was raised to believe that if you are going to criticize, you should do something about it … ”
A Bon Secour native and graduate of Foley High School, Nelson said she would also try to reform the way the board conducts its regular meetings, with work sessions often coming just an hour or two before regular meetings. She said the board should conduct business like the Baldwin County Commission, which holds public work sessions one week in advance of regular meetings.
”There’s no way they have time to really know what they are voting on with some of these issues,” she said. “They are spending our money and ought to be able to tell us exactly where that money is going.”
Efforts to reach Dawson for comment have been unsuccessful this week. In 2009, Dawson was selected as interim superintendent of Baldwin County schools when former superintendent Faron Hollinger announced his resignation. Before that, Dawson spent 21 years as a classroom teacher, four years as an assistant principal at Foley High School for four years and seven years as principal at Fairhope High School, and served as assistant superintendent from January 2004 until 2009.
District 4 is one of two contested board seats in the upcoming primary. Current board president and District 7 representative Shannon Cauley launched her re-election campaign via Facebook Oct. 22. She will face Spanish Fort businessman Chris Francis in the primary.
Cauley was appointed to the board in January 2013 to fill the vacancy left when Tracy Roberts won a seat on the state board of education. Afterward, Baldwin County accepted approximately 17 resumes and letters of interest and ultimately picked Cauley.
The mother of two public school students in the Spanish Fort feeder pattern, Cauley has been active in the PTA at both Spanish Fort Elementary and Middle schools and a board member at the Spanish Fort Educational Enrichment Foundation.
“I really enjoy the work I’m able to do with the board and I love being an advocate for our schools and our students,” Cauley said. “There is more work to be done in the next few years and I want to be a part of it.”
According to Cauley, one of the most important issues facing the board is funding. The renewal of 4 mills of existing ad valorem taxes — lost in the same failed referendum that defeated the 8 mill increase — will also be on the March 2016 primary ballot. She said the board is also working hard to restore trust and communication with voters.
“We have some funding struggles and we do have some issues that need solutions, like our communication with the public,” Cauley said, noting she hopes the system can begin to cultivate a culture of leadership. “I’m just really looking forward to tackling the challenges we face on the board. If residents want someone else, I will still do whatever I can to help make the school system great.”
Francis is the owner of Chris Francis Tree Care in Daphne, but a Spanish Fort resident. A Fairhope High School graduate, Francis said he was frustrated with the way the school system handled the referendum and decided to do something about it after he learned the District 7 seat would be contested in the primary.
“It is one thing to sit on the sidelines and yell criticisms from the outside, but it is another thing to get involved,” he said. “There are a lot of people with good ideas, but few will actually put themselves out there and do something about it.”
Francis and his wife have two children, ages 2 and 4, who he said will attend public schools. While he said his tree business has performed small jobs for the school system in the past, if elected he said his business would not seek the same work to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Francis said he does not support tax increases and will do his best to be a good steward of the existing budget. According to him, as the county grows — with new subdivisions being built and families moving in — the tax base will also grow. The school system does have a challenge in dealing with that growth, he said, and must use the money it already has wisely.
“It’s like paradise has been found,” Francis said. “People found out how great Baldwin County is. We want them to move here, that’s a great thing. But the growth does put a strain on the school system.”
According to Francis, Baldwin voters recognize government waste at all levels, including the school board. He said he does not personally support the renewal of existing millage levels in the primary election.
“This is purely an act of service for me,” Francis said. “I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this system be the best it can be.”