By Al Dozier

A new school board with a different perspective took office in Lexington-Richland District 5 Monday after voters earlier this month voted out two incumbents and elected three newcomers.

The board was often divided by a 4-3 vote in meetings frequently marked by disagreement. But Monday’s actions showed a major change in the board’s outlook as Jan Hammond, often a voice for the minority, was elected chairwoman. Ken Loveless was elected vice chair, and Nikki Gardner secretary. Loveless and Gardner often voted with Hammond.

Long-time board member Robert Gantt and former board chairman Michael Cates lost their bid for re-election. Beth Hutchison, who was often aligned with Gantt, Cates and Board Member Ed White, did not seek re-election.

That cleared the way for newcomers Catherine Huddle, Rebecca Blackburn Hines and Matt Hogan, candidates supported by Hammond.

All three of the new board members were sworn into office with their families beside them at Monday’s meeting.

Hammond expressed appreciation for the newly elected board members.

“This community has been blessed,” she said.

One of the first actions taken by the board was to assert its own prerogative over school reopening plans instead of leaving it up to Superintendent Christina Melton. However, the new board appeared to be supportive of Melton’s leadership.

The board approved a motion by Huddle to resume in-person classes five days a week beginning Monday, Feb. 1 as part of  “Phase 5” of the reopening schedule proposed by Melton. The motion included measure allowing the board to consider a request for a change in the reopening date if there is an increase in the spread of the coronavirus.

Board member Ed White opposed the action, asserting that the board should not issue a “mandate” on a matter that is best decided by the professionals in the district’s staff.

But Loveless countered that the board should be “part of the discussion” when reopening issues are decided.

The new board members also discussed the need to have input from medical professionals throughout the reopening phase.

Melton said the staff is working hard to deal with the new safety measures, but it’s taking a toll. She said some support staff are overworked and the district is having trouble finding teacher substitutes.

During the public participation period, the board continued to hear complaints from families in the Rolling Creek area about a redistricting plan that would take students out of the Chapin cluster.

The board also heard complaints from families who think it’s still too early to return to a regular schedule on school attendance because the pandemic is continuing.

“Take it slow,” said one parent. “Go back to hybrid.”

The board received an update on the district’s magnet program, which continues to draw a lot of interest. Currently the district has 15 magnet programs at 11 different sites in the district. At a recent magnet fair, the district received 300 requests for enrollment.

The board approved the selection of Purple Martins as the mascot for the district’s new elementary school, Pine Ridge Elementary School.

The board also approved the application of a waiver of student on-line test assessments previously required by the state.

The board also announced the retirement of Chief Financial Officer Len Richardson, who has served for 36 years. He was praised for his service to the district.