COLUMBIA — Shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday, James "Jim" Whitt raised his right hand and swore to serve as a member of the Columbia School Board "to the best of his ability." Then the new appointee moved from the front row next to his wife and sons to his seat among the seven-member board.
Minutes later, he would cast his first vote to approve the 2009-2010 budget for the district. The almost $201.4 million budget passed unanimously and without any public comment.
Long before Whitt, 62, was sworn on to the school board, he was inducted into the Indiana Institute of Technology’s Hall of Fame for his years playing college basketball there.
Whitt said his body won't allow him to play anymore. Instead, he spends his time coaching for cPhase Sports Association, a nonprofit organization he started with his wife, Annelle. The focus of the organization is to build leadership and character in boys from sixth grade through high school.
Working with the teens in his program has allowed Whitt to see what some of their needs are, not only from an athletic standpoint, but also academically, he said. cPhase’s motto is, “Commitment to excellence in all phases of life.”
“Our focuses are basketball, education and becoming socially responsible,” Whitt said. “I think what we do and what the school system does fit very closely together.”
Tom Rose, vice president of the school board, said he thinks Whitt’s work with the youth will be beneficial because it allows him to know where they're coming from and what they need.
However, Whitt said cPhase is a small portion of why he is qualified for the seat on the board. Other reasons, he said, are that he's part of the Columbia community, talks with other parents, knows district issues and is a concerned parent. The Whitts have two sons: Marcus, 16, a junior at Hickman High School, and Jimmy, 12, a seventh-grader at Smithton Middle School.
Whitt was one of eight applicants for the seat vacated in May by Rosie Tippin, who resigned for health reasons. During his interview with the board June 11, Whitt said he has three top concerns: funding support, the dropout rate and the academic achievement gap among students.
“Right now, my job is to really learn about what’s going on with the school board — really get in and kind of roll my sleeves up, see what is going on, see what the issues are from an internal perspective," Whitt said in an interview Tuesday. "When you look at it from the outside, you can formulate a lot of ideas and things like that. But, really, before you are able to execute any kind of a plan, you need to get involved and understand what some of the issues are.”
Rose said another plus in appointing Whitt — who narrowly won over Philip Peters after a tie vote by the board — is his business sense. Whitt worked for General Electric for 23 years, part of the time as regional manager.
The Whitts moved to Columbia seven years ago from Wildwood, near St. Louis, after Annelle took a position with Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance Co.
Jim Whitt said that although he is invested in the community, he is still relatively new. "I’m not entrenched in any one idea," he said. "I know there are a lot of good ideas floating around out there. I think I could take a fresh approach and new look to it and figure out what’s the best course we should be taking.”
At the June 11 meeting, talk after the 3-3 vote between Whitt and Peters turned in to a race and whether, given the solid qualifications of the two men, it should be a factor in making the appointment. Rose raised concern that the community wouldn't perceive the board as being representative when it could have. Whitt is black, and Peters is white.
After some discussion, Michelle Pruitt changed her vote from Peters to Whitt, making the final breakdown Pruitt, Rose, Christine King and board president Jan Mees for Whitt and Carla DeSpain and Ines Segert for Peters.
"I think (Whitt) certainly brings diversity of race to the board," Rose said in an interview later. "I hate for it to be an issue, but it is."
Whitt, who will have to run for election next spring if he wants to stay on the board, said he thinks he will be an excellent representative for the Columbia community. "I don’t think it has anything to do with race or anything like that,” Whitt said. “I’m just here to serve.
“I think the board was very thoughtful in their selection, and I commend them for their thoughtfulness, their honesty and their ability to talk about the issues that concern the community and I think that’s a good thing," he said. "All issues should be on the table to be discussed and talked about."