Long Beach School Appointment Stirs Diversity Debate - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

02/04/04

Long Beach School Appointment Stirs Diversity Debate

Questions about qualifications and race surround a controversial school board appointment in Long Beach.

The Long Beach Board of Alderman voted 4-to-2 Tuesday night to appoint Tim Pierce to fill an upcoming vacancy on the school board.

Pierce, who is white, was competing for the position against three African-American candidates.

Mayor Robert Bass plans to veto the choice, reminding the board of an earlier resolution they passed to promote diversity in the school system.

The aldermen need five votes to overturn the mayoral veto. And right now the question of what's next is very much up in the air. This much is clear: there are strong feelings in Long Beach about candidate qualifications, skin color and politics.

Pictures of the five Long Beach school board members hang in the lobby of the school administration building. There are three men and two women. All are white.

Joseph McNary, the only African-American on the board of aldermen, says that needs to change.

"We need some representation. We really do. And a lot of that has come from my white friends who feel the same way," he said.

Alderman McNary has long been a champion of racial diversity in Long Beach. He wants the board to stop playing politics.

"I don't know what's going to happen. You know, I've been a champion of race and fussing and fighting. But I've retired. So, if anyone is going to stand up, they're going to have to come to the forefront," said a frustrated McNary.

Alderman Gary Ponthiex says he nominated Tim Pierce, his predecessor on the board of aldermen, because he believes Pierce is the most qualified candidate.

"I did not in any way, shape or form want to see anything turn into some type of race issue. Which it is not. Long Beach is not like that," he said.

Long Beach school superintendent Carolyn Hamilton told WLOX News she did not get involved with the process of choosing a school board candidate. She said, "I will trust the mayor and board of aldermen to do what they think is best."

Mayor Robert Bass promised a rare veto of the board's school board vote.

"I thought this was a time where the board needed to practice what it preached. And quite frankly, this veto will be the first time in almost seven years of being mayor I've practiced the veto. And I just thought it was an appropriate time," the mayor explained.

The total number of students in the Long Beach district is 3,264. Of those, 456 are African-American. That's 14 percent.

The board of alderman's choice for the school board, says the focus should be on the children.

"I think it's more that we need to keep the kids in mind. And try to put who's going to be able to do the best job for the school district. Not the color of their skin or nationality," said Tim Pierce.

Mayor Robert Bass has not yet signed the formal veto, but he assured WLOX News that will happen. The board of aldermen will revisit the issue at its next meeting on February 17th. They could override the mayor's veto with five votes, or they may have to start the selection process over.

By Steve Phillips

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