First of two parts Gadfly member assailed for televised remarks as pro-Baldwin backlash builds.
By Roger McCredie- Judging from on-the-street comments and social media posts, a groundswell of pre-election public support is emerging for outspoken Buncombe County Board of Education member Lisa Baldwin was mauled – again – during last week’s BOE meeting.
The most recent brouhaha was triggered by Baldwin’s appearance in a pre-taped, two-minute re-election statement on Greenville, S.C., television station WYFF. WYFF, an NBC affiliate, is considered an integral part of the same television market as WSPA-TV in Spartanburg (CBS) and Asheville’s WLOS-TV (ABC). In the announcement, Baldwin described herself as “the one vote against the rubberstamping status quo majority” on the board. She also said Buncombe’s school system has “a long way to go” and said the county has for the past three years led the state in criminal acts committed by students. She also called attention to an alleged 41 per cent cut on the county’s supplies and textbook budget. Baldwin, who was elected as representative for Reynolds district in 2010, has spent her term of office coloring outside the lines of the board’s comfort zone, mostly by conducting her own investigations into matters affecting county schools, by interacting directly with the media, and by raising questions or commenting on issues the board at large has made it plain were not to be discussed.
On board resolutions that would otherwise be unanimous, hers is frequently the lone dissenting vote. School boards are not noted for suffering dissenters gladly. Baldwin’s methods and her usually unflappable defense of her positions have made her the member her colleagues love to hate. So when the school board convened last Thursday evening, observers expected there would be repercussions from Baldwin’s television spot. They were not disappointed. As soon as the meeting’s public comment section opened, Paula Dinga, a third-grade teacher and volunteer campaign worker for Baldwin’s opponent, Cindy McMahan, pounced on Baldwin’s television comments. “It’s nothing less than demoralizing,” Dinga said, than for a board member to make “inappropriate remarks” concerning the Buncombe school system. She accused Baldwin of creating “false hysteria” by asserting that Buncombe county students are turning more and more to charter schools, and she chastised Baldwin for backing charter school vouchers that, she said, divert money from the school system. She ended by asking, “Is our credibility being undermined from within?”
Dinga’s remarks set the stage for the main public comment event, which was an appearance by Jan Blunt, who resigned earlier this year as the school system’s head of public relations and communications. During Blunt’s time in office, she and Baldwin had a running, highly visible feud and Blunt wasted no time renewing it. (Blunt earlier had announced her resignation from the McMahon campaign, where she was serving as a publicity coordinator, presumably so that she could make her remarks without violating the “no politics” rule for public comment.) Blunt began by addressing what she referred to as “a pattern of attack on our school professionals” by Baldwin, brandishing a sheaf of e-mails she said were copies an exchange of correspondence between Baldwin and county Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun as well as Nutrition Director Lisa Payne.
She also mentioned a complaint Baldwin filed with the state bar association against system attorney Dean Shatley. Blunt also mentioned having been “publicly attacked” by Baldwin, for which she had filed two grievances against Baldwin. Speaking of Baldwin’s video comments about in-school crime rates and dropout statistics, Blunt said, “She’s doing this on WYFF Television in Greenville. She’s hardly an ambassador for the school system. Blunt did not attempt to refute any of the points raised by Baldwin in the video. Instead she said “We work darn hard for these kids and I think that we deserve better than to have a member go to South Carolina and say that she represents a terrible school system and she’s the only person who can fix it,” Blunt said. Blunt then attacked Baldwin’s credentials. “She says she’s an economist … I know that an economist is somebody with a Ph.D,” Blunt said. Baldwin has a master’s degree in consumer economics from the University of Maryland; however, Blunt charged, “She says she has a degree in economic policy and law … there is no such degree. “She has had problems with truth, she has problems with ethics, she accuses people of all sorts of crimes and ridiculous things, and most of all she hs sent private information to the media and to the public,” Blunt concluded.
At this point an unusual thing happened. Baldwin herself signed in for public comment. There was a hurried conference between Superintendent Tony Baldwin and Board Chairman Bob Rhinehart. “All right, Mrs. Baldwin,” Rhinehart said, and Baldwin walked across the room to the podium. “Miss Blunt resigned her position as communications director earlier this year –” she began. That was as far as she got. “Mrs. Baldwin,” board attorney Chris Campbell interrupted, “I want to remind you that board members cannot speak about personnel matters.” “Thank you,” Baldwin said. “I understand that Mrs. Blunt resigned after a legislative inquiry into her e-mails –” “Mrs. Baldwin, Campbell interjected, “You cannot discuss employees.” “I am trying to discuss the legislature,” Baldwin replied. “It is inappropriate,” Campbell said. Next: Baldwin attempts to explain her television appearance (without much luck), board member Amy Churchill piles on, a groundswell of pro-Baldwin sentiment arises.