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Drop the Pompoms: School Board Feud Gets Ugly



One man's administrative action is another man's political assassination attempt.

Regardless of the interpretation, School Board Chairman George Braxton has clipped the wings of one of his biggest political rivals by removing fellow board member Keith West as the board's finance, budget and audit committee chairman.

"It's total political motivation," says West, whose three-member committee has been exploring whether to consolidate the school system's audit and finance departments with the city; a move that has caused an uncomfortable twisting of the undergarments among some schools officials. "It's classic circle the wagon; it also shows why we're going nowhere as a school system because every idea that comes up ... is met with hostility."

The decision to remove West, Braxton says, was made weeks ago because of West's failure to do an adequate job. But the ax fell at last Monday's School Board meeting, made more convenient by a point of order raised by West himself.

When West cried foul over Braxton's decision to create a separate committee to examine recent alleged failings of the school board auditor, Braxton decided to act on an obscure procedural issue to reassign all of the board's committees.

"We changed our bylaws last year and in order to comply with the bylaws, we needed to name our committees and say what our standing committees were through resolution," Braxton says, noting that his action corrected the board's previous failure to vote on the formation of the committees.

And, Braxton says, it also corrected his own mistake in placing West as chairman of the finance committee.

"Whether we did the bylaws … I was planning on removing him from the position," Braxton says, calling West "a disappointment to just about everyone else on the board."

West was appointed to the committee just two months ago, shortly after his contentious and very public horn locking with Braxton over the board's chairman seat. West has raised questions about Braxton's leadership during the board's often less than productive clashes with Mayor L. Douglas Wilder over a variety of schools issues.

Now, Braxton says, West has proven himself unworthy of a board leadership position. "He has been named to another committee," says Braxton, confirming that West would not be chairing any committees, and that "he will not be on finance."

Braxton justifies the move by saying West failed to show commitment to the budget process: "Over about 15 or 16 hours of [special budget workshops], I think he was there for about 2 hours."

A review of minutes from the four meetings shows West present for two, but also shows other board members, including Betsy Carr, Kim Bridges, Carol Wolf and Vice Chairwoman Lisa Dawson missing or arriving late for the meetings.

West says the meetings were scheduled in conflict with his childcare arrangements, and calls illegal Braxton's decision to reshuffle committee memberships.

"That's bullshit," says West of Braxton's claim that only a nuclear approach could fix the procedural oversight in not properly creating the board's committees.

"The analogy would be that we didn't follow some procedure in his election as chairman," West suggests. "Should we do that over?"

Instead, West says the move was entirely about his uncomfortable examination of Schools Auditor Debra Johns'audit of the cost and procedures used to move the school system's information technology department came under intense scrutiny of some members of the board. The move cost as much as $700,000.

West says he advocates combining the School Board's audit department with the city department, and plans to go ahead with a scheduled meeting of his committee on March 20 where he will officially announce his committee's findings.

But Braxton says West's suggestion was made without "asking the tough questions." He says West is "living in a fantasy if he thought what he was doing was good work." (Braxton declined to discuss Johns, citing it as a "personnel matter.")

West says Braxton is out of line calling him a disappointment or calling into question the job he does for the voters in his district.

"If he has something to say to me, I suggest that he do it directly, instead of engaging in a campaign of whispers and unfounded innuendo as befits middle-school girls wishing to be chosen head cheerleader," West says, also wondering why the chairman has been slow to move forward on recommendations from city audits and various state studies that suggest consolidating school and city departments.

"If he wants to stop progress, that's up to him," West says. "The voters in November get to decide if his actions are in the best interests of the school system."

See related story The Broken Rule

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