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Clarke County School Board Names New Member to Vacant Seat

Newly appointed District 2 school board member Claudia Butts. Credit: Courtesy of the Clarke County School District

The Clarke County School Board unanimously selected Claudia Butts as the new member from District 2 at its monthly meeting on Dec. 12. The seat has been open since Kirrena Gallagher resigned to run for the ACC Commission, where she faces former commissioner Melissa Link in a March election to replace District 2 commissioner Mariah Parker, who resigned in September. 

An Athens native, Butts is a 2016 graduate of Paine College in Augusta and an employee of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency in Gainesville. She has also worked at the Clarke County DFCS office and for Advantage Behavior Healthcare System. She works with children in the Nellie B Housing Community and is a Girl Scout troop leader. Butts will be in office for the remainder of Gallagher’s term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2024.

Two other people well-known to school board watchers, Mary P. Bagby and Antwon Stephens, also put themselves forward to fill the seat. Bagby was a fixture at public meetings during the tenure of former superintendent Demond Means, often adding fuel to the fires of heated rhetoric. She ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 seat in 2020, losing to Gallagher, and has applied three times for vacancies on the board.

Stephens was briefly a candidate for mayor in 2018 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020 despite being below the required age of 25 to serve in Congress. He was selected over Bagby and others to fill the remainder of Frances Berry’s term in 2020. (Berry herself was appointed after longtime board member Vernon Payne resigned.) Later, it emerged that Stephens had misled the board about having graduated from Cedar Shoals High School and had fabricated dozens of donors to his short-lived mayoral campaign on official disclosures, which led to a state ethics complaint. After those revelations, Stephens resigned and said he would check himself into a mental health facility.

Before the selection process began, each candidate spoke for five minutes about why they wanted to join the board. Bagby said she wanted to be very involved in the day-to-day operation of schools and even of classrooms and teachers. Interference in school operations is a big no-no, given accreditation agency Cognia’s criticism of board operations in years past. District 8 representative Nicole Hull asked Bagby how her approach wouldn’t bring more criticism from Cognia. Bagby said she knew her boundaries.

Butts said she wanted to join the board to help children and that she wanted to be a team player. Her comment resonated with board member Patricia Yager. “That’s a really important part of being on this board,” she said. “We’ve worked really hard to work as a team.”

Stephens told the board, “I’m the only candidate who’s done the job effectively.”

The selection process worked like this: A board member could nominate a candidate without having a second. Whoever got the majority of votes was declared the winner.

Board President LaKeisha Gantt said the board had “three qualified candidates” from which to choose, each one with strengths. She nominated Bagby to fill the open seat. Newly seated District 9 representative Mark Evans nominated Stephens (though he voted for Butts), and Yager nominated Butts, the winner. As Butts was nominated first, the board voted on her nomination first, and after she won there was no need to vote on the other nominations.

The board also discussed changing the names of two elementary schools to honor the first Black teachers at those schools. Alps Road Elementary would be named for Bettye Henderson Holston, who taught students out of a janitor’s building when she joined the faculty, her son told the board. Chase Street Elementary would be named for Johnnie Lay Burks, the school’s first Black teacher. 

Board member Linda Davis said Scott Killian was the first Black student at Chase Street. She hasn’t talked to him, and he hasn’t talked about any lasting trauma from his time at Chase, but she wants the school to be named Burks-Killian Elementary. Davis then talked about trauma and said she couldn’t understand honoring one person when so many people were involved in moving the district forward and obeying the Supreme Court ruling forcing desegregation. Gantt disagreed, saying recognizing one person doesn’t minimize another. The school board will vote on the new names at its February meeting.