Changing of the Guard

Published 2:39 pm Saturday, July 18, 2009

WINDSOR – A surprise change led to a historic moment for the Bertie County Board of Education Thursday night.

After a split vote, the school board chose Emma H. Johnson to replace Rickey Freeman as chair of the board for the rest of the current term. Freeman explained his resignation from the position of chairman after the vote, stating that he needed more time to spend with his family.

“I’m flabbergasted,” Johnson said after taking over as chair, becoming the first female to ever take that role on the Bertie County Board of Education. “I hope that I am going to have all of your support because I will need it.”

Johnson was chosen among three candidates nominated to become chair following Freeman’s resignation.

After Vice Chair Gloria Lee opened the public meeting, board member Pamela Chamblee moved to amend the agenda for the selection of a new chair of the board. The motion passed unanimously.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger then asked for nominations for the position of school board chair. Chamblee nominated Lee; board member Alton H. Parker nominated Johnson and Lee nominated Chamblee.

Dr. Zullinger called for a signed paper ballot vote which Chamblee objected to. She said the vote was not conducted that way when Freeman was selected in December.

Board Attorney Carolyn Waller, who was not at the December meeting, said she did not know how that particular vote was conducted, but stated that board policy required signed ballots.

Chamblee said she did not believe that was policy and requested it be shown to her. Waller then found the policy which stated signed paper ballots were required.

“I stand corrected,” Chamblee said.

Dr. Zullinger then called for the board members to vote and they returned the ballots to Waller. After she opened them, she discovered some of them were not signed and the board was asked to vote again and sign the ballots.

Once she received the votes, Waller read the names on each ballot. When all was said and done, Johnson, Parker and Freeman voted for Johnson and Lee and Chamblee voted for Lee.

“I’m just shocked,” Chamblee said after the vote.

After Johnson had taken her seat at the head of the table, Freeman asked for a moment of personal privilege to explain his decision.

“Last month, I submitted a letter of resignation as chairman of this board for personal and family reasons,” he said. “The board asked me to reconsider, but after things have developed, I felt like I needed to be just a board member.

“My father told me that if I couldn’t do something 100 percent, not to do it at all,” he continued. “I don’t feel like I can give 100 percent to being chairman. I feel like I can continue to do my work as a board member, but need to step down at this time as chairman.”

Freeman also pledged his support to Johnson and Lee, who will continue to serve as vice chair.

“Ms. Johnson and Ms. Lee, drive on, I’ve got your back,” he said.

Later in the meeting, all members of the board congratulated Johnson during their personal comments. Chamblee recognized the fact that Johnson became the first female chair of the school board.

In an interview following the meeting, Johnson said she was honored to be the board’s first female chairperson.

“First of all, I was shocked,” she said. “As for the impact, I really wasn’t aware that I was the first female chair of the board. It does mean a lot to be the first female and yet an African-American.

“I feel honored and I hope that I can serve as a role model for other females who want to be in leadership positions in Bertie County and across the country,” she added.

Johnson, who taught school for more than three decades, said she would never have imagined she would one day chair the board of education.

“Oh, Lord, no,” she said. “I would have never imagined in those 33 years that I would ever be on the board of education, much less chair.”

Still, the new chairperson believed her experience in the classroom is beneficial to her service on the board.

“I think my experience in the classroom has really equipped me to look at our district and to be able to evaluate and analyze the things we are doing,” she said. “We are doing so many exciting things.”

Johnson also praised Freeman’s service to the school board.

“Mr. Freeman was a great chair and I’ll certainly miss his leadership in that position,” she said. “He is very knowledgeable about everything that is going on. He is a great human relations person and knows how to keep the board working together.

“I hope that I can be as astute in leadership as he has been,” she added.