Meet the Lincoln County School Board candidates

Published 1:10 am Saturday, September 15, 2018

Two retired teachers, a retired highway administrator, a Coast Guard petty officer, a physical therapist and a graphic designer.

These are the six Lincoln County citizens running for a seat on the Lincoln County School District Board of Trustees, and they will be spending the next seven weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 general election making rounds, shaking hands and asking for the people’s support for a new term — or a continued term — on the body that oversees the county’s four public schools.

Justin Laird, a 37-year-old IT professional who is active in the U.S. Coast Guard, will walk into the District 1 seat unopposed after incumbent Kay Coon declined to qualify for another run. He will serve a six-year term.

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District 2 incumbent Johnny Hart, a 63-year-old retired branch director with the Mississippi Department of Transportation, will defend his seat on the board against Billy Vaughn, a 58-year-old retired teacher who last served at Loyd Star Attendance Center.

District 5 incumbent Joanna Posey, a 47-year-old graphic designer with A2Z Printing, will face two challengers for her spot on the board — Tim Cunningham, a 41-year-old physical therapist with King’s Daughters Medical Center; and Lora Hedgepeth, a 57-year-old retired school teacher who last taught at Loyd Star.

The races for District 2 is a general election for a six-year term. District 5 is a special election for a four-year term, and is needed to correct the district’s election cycle after a missed election in the past.

All six candidates have their own reasons for seeking a term on the school board, and each has a different skill set they feel makes them qualified.

Justin Laird, District 1

Laird puts a lot of miles on his car — he’s active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard in New Orleans, and he drives there and back every day from his home near Enterprise Attendance Center. In three years, he can retire from the service and slow down with his wife, Lacey Holmes Laird, and two kids — his son, Patrick, a ninth-grader at Enterprise; and Piper, his daughter, a sixth-grader at the same school.

After 17 years of training in leadership and problem-solving by the military, Laird said he’s taking a shot at the school board because he considers it a duty.

“My generation needs to step up. We need to be leaders in our communities, and that’s my No. 1 reason for why I’m doing this,” he said. “I have kids in school — who’s more qualified to do this than someone who’s directly affected by it?”

Laird said one of his goals as a board member will be to lobby for the inclusion of more technology in Lincoln County’s classrooms. As an IT professional in the service, he works with technology every day and believes all students should learn their way around computers and achieve competency among several different software versions.

Laird also plans to focus on special education — his son, Patrick, is a special needs student. He wants to end the county’s practice of bussing students with more acute special needs to Loyd Star and equip each county school to teach all the special needs students in its community.

“That’s where assistive technology comes in — that’s the kind of stuff that, if we put that in the hands of our special educators, it can open doors for children who’ve had the door slammed shut on them,” Laird said. “It can help integrate them into a regular class with the least restrictive environment possible and help them succeed.”

Johnny Hart, District 2

Hart, who retired from MDOT after 36 years, is seeking his third term on the school board, and has more school governing experience than any other candidate. He served from 2001 to 2006, and was elected again in 2013. He has around 130 hours of continuing education for school board service.

Hart and his wife, Paula Britt Hart, have two children and five grandchildren. Son Brett Hart’s family lives in North Carolina, but their daughter, Erin Hester, has two kids at Loyd Star — Hart’s grandson, Carson, is a third-grader there, while his granddaughter, Embry, is in kindergarten.

“I want to be a part of a district that will produce a quality education for my two grandkids, as well as all the children in this district,” Hart said. “We’ve got a lot of things going on in the district right now, a lot of large projects, and I’d like to see them through to completion — I was there for the beginning, and I would like to see them finished.”

Hart said he wants the board to invest in agriculture and technical programs, as well as band and music programs, at all four county schools. He also wants to see classroom space expanded at each school as needed, and he wants the board to reconsider the football and soccer complex at Loyd Star, which was defeated on a 3-2 vote last month.

“I try to be level-headed about all of our decisions,” Hart said. “I try to weigh the good and the bad and find out what would be the best for our district and for our children. I feel like I am in there for the right reasons, and I want the district to be the best it can be for the kids.”

Billy Vaughn, District 2

Billy Vaughn, 58, retired from the Lincoln County School District earlier this year after 33 years — 20 at Enterprise and 13 at Loyd Star — as a coach and administrator, and now manages Touch & Go Car Wash. He’s a Loyd Star graduate, and he’s been married to Nancy Finison Vaughn for 34 years. He has two daughters, Brandi Vaughn Sellers and Emily Vaughn.

Vaughn’s candidacy is a spiritual journey.

“Honestly, I feel led by God to seek this position,” he said. “I believe Lincoln County has lost its vision of a united district where consistency and accountability go hand-in-hand. My heart has always been for the students, not only at the schools I served at, but also for all the students within the Lincoln County School District. It’s my desire to be a part of bringing the focus back to our students.”

When asked what specific policy changes he wants to make, Vaughn says accessibility comes first — instead of changing policy, he wants to post the board’s policy book online and make sure teachers and parents are able to read and understand it.

“The school board has paid for the service for at least four years without results,” Vaughn said. “It’s important for anyone connected to our schools to know what the policies are. Otherwise, there is no direction.”

Vaughn said his three decades of service to the district — as teacher, coach, athletic director, bus driver and other positions — gives him firsthand experience as to how the schools operate from day to day.

“While in these positions at Enterprise and Loyd Star, I feel like I developed relationships with the students, parents and citizens of District 2 that will be of great value when making the decisions required of the Lincoln County School Board,” he said.

Tim Cunningham, District 5

Tim Cunningham, 41, was a member of Loyd Star’s Class of 1995 before he graduated from Copiah-Lincoln Community College and University of Mississippi Medical Center, and then became a physical therapist with KDMC. He and his wife, Sandy Stevens Cunningham, have two Hornet sons — 12-year-old Conner Cunningham, and 9-year-old Carson Cunningham.

Conner and Carson are the reasons why he’s running for school board.

“I want my kids to have a strong school in Lincoln County, so it’s time for me to serve,” Cunningham said. “I felt like it was time for people of my generation to step up and be willing to serve our community. This past year, I know there’s been some disunity in District 5, and it’s one of those things where you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

Cunningham wants to drive away that disunity and “change the narrative” in the district — which he feels is leaning too far toward sports — back to academics. The next school board will choose the district’s first appointed superintendent, and he wants a voice in that vote.

“That’s going to be huge,” Cunningham said. “Once that person is appointed, we need to step back and let them do their job. The school board is best utilized when it’s unseen.”

Cunningham said there are parallels between his job as a physical therapist and service on the school board, and he feels those similarities have made him ready for the job.

“We’re constantly teaching the importance of exercise and study, and change — change isn’t a bad thing,” he said. “Sometimes you can look at the same problem over and over, and I think we need new ideas. If you’re not willing to change with the times, you’re falling behind.”

Lora Hedgepeth, District 5

Lora Hedgepeth, 57, retired from the school district in 2014 after teaching elementary school at Enterprise for 19 years and at Loyd Star for nine years. She’s a born-and-raised Lincoln Countian, married to Danny Hedgepeth with two children, Garret May and Caitie Boatwright. One of her two grandchildren is a first-grader at Loyd Star.

Hedgepeth said she’s been waiting for an opportunity to run for school board since her retirement four years ago. She believes service on the board would be a great way for her to put all her years of experience in schools back to work.

“I have experience as a teacher, a parent and, now, a grandparent,” Hedgepeth said. “I have experience that can be beneficial to a person wanting to serve the community.”

Hedgepeth said her teaching experience can bring insight to the school board on faculty and staffing decisions, as she understands how things work on the classroom level. She doesn’t have a specific issue or change she wants to target if elected, but wants to apply her teaching experience on a case-by-case basis.

“My No. 1 priory would be the students, making sure they get the best education possible, and that we use the resources we have available in the best way toward that goal,” Hedgepeth said. “We’ve had some kind of negative publicity in the community, and I would like to make the community feel confident in the school board. I feel like everyone running wants the community to have a positive feeling about the board, to let them know we’re working for them. We need to do our best for the community.”

Joanna Posey, District 5

The race’s only other incumbent is Joanna Posey, a 47-year-old graphic designer who has served on the school board for just shy of two years after being appointed to fulfill the unexpired term of her father-in-law, Michael Posey. She’s married to Jeff Posey and has two children at Loyd Star — 17-year-old Claire Posey, a senior; and 14-year-old Justin Posey, a freshman.

Posey said public education is any community’s biggest asset, and she wants a shot at a full six-year term to continue serving that “worthy cause.” She knows her way around the school board and isn’t afraid to ask questions or make demands.

“I would love to see our district develop some long-range planning,” Posey said. “We don’t have that, and we need it for facilities and academic goals. I think it’s got to become a priority. We’ve got to look hard at where we want to take our district, and take some action.”

Posey said a long-range plan for campus needs would have prevented recent issues about classroom space at Bogue Chitto and West Lincoln.

“If you don’t plan for your facility needs before they come up, you’re playing catch-up, and you should never play catch-up,” she said. “We should have dealt with that before it ever got to that point.”

Posey said her experience as a graphic designer — where she multitasks projects for numerous clients, with each job running on strict deadlines — makes her qualified for facing the various issues on which school boards sit in judgment.

“I’m a problem-solver and a goal-setter, and those are both areas in which I think I can bring something to the table,” she said.