Fort Smith School Board elections draw four new names, one incumbent to two races

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 166 views 

The Fort Smith School Board election planned for Sept. 20 is now locked in place and both positions up for grabs will be contested. For At-Large Position 5, Talicia Richardson will square off against Greg Murray while Zone 2 Position 1 incumbent Susan McFerran will face Marc Werschem and Brian Means after previously being elected unopposed in 2013.

In September 2015, Wade Gilkey ousted incumbent Russell Owen in a landslide earning 75% of the vote (900 votes) to Owen’s 25% (295 votes). Also unseated was Rick Wade, who lost in an only slightly closer landslide to Bill Hanesworth, 72% (2,333 votes) to 28% (928 votes).

Fueling the discontent at the time against incumbents were the controversial decisions to remove Rebels as Southside High School’s official mascot and to eliminate “Dixie” as the school’s official fight song. McFerran, a retired elementary school teacher, was the Board member, who motioned for the change at the July 27, 2015, meeting. That motion was seconded by Rick Wade and approved unanimously.

Gilkey and Hanesworth admitted to disliking the way in which the mascot/song change was done, but have ultimately decided not to pursue or support a vote to re-introduce the old mascot. Those decisions came on the heels of the surprise resignation of legendary Athletic Director Jim Rowland last May at a heated School Board meeting in which Rowland rebuked the effort to “save the Rebels,” specifically organizer and Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen. McCutchen has been an outspoken critic of the switch, but has officially abandoned efforts to reverse the decision and has not formally endorsed a candidate for September.

The controversy played a role in the 2015 bid to increase the millage rate. While Fort Smith voters ultimately said yes to raising the rate to 36.5, it was by a much smaller margin than they had approved a prior millage increase in 2013, going to 57% approval from 80% in the previous election.

Zone 2 candidate Brian Means is a medical device representative for Zimmer Bionet. Means was unable to speak in detail about his reason for running on Tuesday, but has agreed to sit down in the near future for an interview with Talk Business & Politics.

Murray and Werschem have expressed support for the Rebels mascot in the past. In a petition started 10 months ago, Murray, an assistant manager with the Van Buren Walmart, said that as a 1992 Southside graduate, “I believe in tradition. I believe that change for the sake of change has never benefited anything. The name Rebels is not racist. The majority of our community has spoken and needs to be upheld and not ignored. The majority needs its voice back.”

Werschem, a self-employed consultant and 1973 Southside graduate as well as founder of the tea party-affiliated Fort Smith Patriots group, said as part of the same petition that he wanted to keep the Rebels name and that there was “absolutely nothing wrong with the name nor is there anything racist about it.”

“It is who we are,” he added.

Murray and Werschem are seeking campaign funds through separate GoFundMe pages. Murray is hoping to raise $1,000 while Werschem is targeting $500. In each case, the candidates write that campaign funds will go toward “door hangers, yard signs, and other campaign materials.” Both men are running with a variation of the campaign slogan, “Make our schools great again!”

Talk Business & Politics recently published a story on Talicia Richardson after she issued a press release announcing her candidacy last week, and plans to continue spotlighting candidates – pending responses – ahead of Sept. 13 early voting.