Tonya Laird Lewis named to Wicomico school board

A Willards mother of two who works as a substitute teacher in the Wicomico schools system was named to the open post on the county school board.

After a convoluted succession of abstentions, recusals and pointed debate about the appointment process on Tuesday, Tonya Laird Lewis was selected over Gains Hawkins to fill the seat formerly held by the late David Goslee.

The District 3 seat became available when Goslee died last winter, not long after his razor-thin election to the nonpartisan school board.

In a meeting last month, council members couldn’t reach a consensus on whether to choose Lewis or Hawkins. The matter became unexpectedly complicated when Council President John Cannon declared a personal conflict with Hawkins — Cannon’s wife works with Hawkins’ daughter — sending the vote into a 3-3 tie.

Because the council couldn’t agree, the nomination process was expected to return to the county’s School Board Nomination Commission for a new round of nominee selections.

A few days after the tie, however, Cannon announced he had erred in how he oversaw the process and, in fact, didn’t need to choose between two candidates and could decide to select one.

“I was looking at the two candidates side by side as if there was competition between the two,” Cannon said at the time.

“I felt it was my responsibility to abstain where I had a conflict of interest, but not to abstain where there may not be a conflict of interest. My conflict of interest was with Gains because there is too strong of a business relationship between Gains’ family members and me and my family.

“So, with that being the case, I believe my abstention should only be with Mr. Hawkins and not with Ms. Lewis, because I have no conflict of interest with her,” Cannon said.

That’s just how the council structured the votes on Tuesday, with separate affirmation votes on Lewis and Hawkins.

Councilman Bill McCain moved that the council table the appointment votes, citing the interpretation of a missed deadline to act and insisting the public was left with the impression the matter would return to the nominating commission. That effort failed on a partisan 4-3 vote.

McCain then declared any further action potentially illegal, criticized the entire selection process and complained that council members had engaged in no public discussions on the matter.

“I won’t participate in  something illegal,” McCain said.

Then, dramatically, he announced his recusal on the vote and left the council chamber.

Seeking to clear the air, Councilman Marc Kilmer told his colleagues the council was undergoing a learning process brought about by the adoption of an elected school board system.

“I’m the first to admit this process is not working well,” Kilmer said. “(Still) I think we’re within our rights to vote.”

The final vote in support of Lewis was 4-1, with the council’s four Republicans — Kilmer, Cannon, Joe Holloway and Larry Dodd — voting yes. Though McCain recused, Josh Hastings abstained and Ernie Davis voted no.

Lewis, on her application, said she is a “highly involved and dedicated parent within Wicomico County” and listed her career objective as maintaining “a positive cooperative relationship with the schools and board officials in Wicomico County” and enhancing her educational and professional skills in “an environment which advocates for children’s learning and safety.”

Since March 2016, she has been a substitute teacher and said she is skilled in “maintaining an effective teaching and learning environment.”

From 2009 to 2012 she was a certified nursing assistant and geriatric nursing assistant, working at Berlin Nursing and Rehab and also worked at Heaven’s Angel Home Care, assisting patients with daily activities and core exercise functions.

She has a bachelor’s in Biology from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and has two children in the public school system.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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