Dawn Clements seemed poised for the top job in her hometown school district after 22 years of service and a stint as interim superintendent, but she resigned last month after an anti-gay letter that argued she was unfit for the role circulated in Ben Hill County.
Hundreds of residents of the South Georgia county midway between Valdosta and Macon soundly rejected the letter and resignation. The school board did, too.
It voted on Jan. 28 to ask Clements to be superintendent and presented the contract at a meeting Tuesday night, board Chair Shirley Brooks said. Clements has not yet made a decision about the offer, which would be effective as of March 1. The school district’s human resources director, James Sirmans, will act as interim superintendent, Brooks said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, resident Beth McIntyre thanked the board for offering Clements the job of leading the 3,000-student school district. She also thanked the board for convening on short notice in January after a letter to local pastors caused an uproar.
The letter’s author asked pastors to speak in opposition of hiring Clements and claimed homosexuality should disqualify a person from leadership positions in a school. “This woman has a lot of qualifications, except one, to be a superintendent: the moral qualifications to be a role model for children,” the author states. A woman who answered a phone call to the author’s home said he declined to comment.
The letter went viral in local social media circles, spurring numerous responses.
“It is highly unlikely that anyone could find a candidate for superintendent that is more qualified and has the integrity of my friend Dawn Clements,” one person wrote on Facebook. “Furthermore, it would be impossible to find that qualified candidate who also has a love for and a dedication to Ben Hill County Schools like she does.”
Others shared stories of Clements helping them graduate, inspiring them to teach and boosting morale in schools. “She was the best math teacher my son ever had,” one person said.
There was real-life support as well. Hundreds turned out for the board’s called meeting less than two weeks ago, according to a report from the WALB television station. Video from the meeting showed people dressed in school colors and carrying homemade signs. They erupted in cheers after the board voted unanimously to offer Clements the superintendent job.
The board heard some opposition to the move at its meeting Tuesday: Andy Harper, a parent of children in the district, said hiring a superintendent should be a competitive process and the board should conduct a wider search. He also channeled faith to emphasize the importance of the board’s decision, saying, “For he, your creator, lord and master will not take your policies, hirings or activities done by your hands, voice or lack of voice lightly.”
Clements did not respond to requests for an interview.
Ben Hill County, named after a U.S. senator who was a staunch opponent of Reconstruction, is politically conservative. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker won nearly 64% of the vote in last year’s runoff against Democratic incumbent the Rev. Raphael Warnock. Republican presidential nominees have won a similar percentage of the vote in Ben Hill each of the last four elections.
Clements was named interim superintendent in June. She grew up in Fitzgerald, the county’s only incorporated city, and graduated from Fitzgerald High School in 1989. Clements has been with the Ben Hill system for 22 years, working as a teacher, coach, instructional coach, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent/human resources director and chief operating officer.
“Dawn comes to this position with a wealth of knowledge and we are thrilled she is going to lead us forward,” concludes Clements’ bio on the school system’s website.
Jeff Graham, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Georgia Equality, said he was alerted of the letter circulating in Ben Hill. He was pleased, but not surprised, with how things played out.
“It restores my faith in the fact that Georgians are very fair,” Graham said. “The prevalent attitude is that folks should be judged based on their merit and ability to do a job.”
Federal law provides protections that prohibits most employers, including a school board, from denying someone a job because of sexuality. However, Graham said the federal language doesn’t say that clearly enough and Georgia has no employment protection laws. His organization is pushing for the state to enact laws that specifically say discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity is illegal.
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