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Longtime school board chairman ready to pass the gavel
Higgins says hell keep serving his community, one way or another
Hall County Board of Education Chairman Richard Higgins’ takes some time to rake leaves at his North Hall home Sunday afternoon. Higgins recently lost his bid for a fourth term on the Hall County Board of Education ending his 12-year streak on the school board.

Life after losing

After a long and busy election season, newly elected officials are preparing for years in the public eye. But many of their challengers have already returned to obscurity. Today, The Times begins a weekly series focusing on life for those who fell short at the ballot box— from ousted incumbents to long-shot candidates with eyes on the next election cycle.

Blame it on a pervasive anti-incumbency mood in a midterm election year. Or maybe on local issues, like a controversial vote to close Hall County’s Jones Elementary.

Whatever the reason, Hall County voters simply said “no” to Richard Higgins’ bid for a fourth term on the Hall County Board of Education.

Months after the primary election that ended his 12-year streak on the school board, Higgins says he doesn’t have a problem returning to a life outside of public office.

The outgoing chairman — whose hand has been on the gavel of the school board for more than a decade of growth, changing demographics and now, economic hardship — said he never felt like much of a politician anyway.

 “I felt like it was more or less a role of service,” Higgins said. “You do run. You are elected. But I felt like it was more of a role of service.”

Higgins, a Hall County native with inescapable ties to the local political scene — his first cousin, Tom Oliver, is chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, and Higgins served as chairman for his friend state Sen. Butch Miller’s campaign for the General Assembly — doesn’t act like much of a politician, either.

The 58-year-old owner of Carrier Services Inc., a local freight logistics company, has the aggressive build of a former defensive end. But Higgins doesn’t carry the pretension and swagger of other seasoned politicians.

After 12 years as a public figure, Higgins still shies away from local news photographers and is careful not to offend when he speaks.

And though he lives in a world in which even local politics is wrought with negative campaigning, the veteran school board chairman simply won’t say anything bad about his opponents.

Higgins calls Bill Thompson, whose campaign for the board’s at-large seat ousted Higgins this summer, “a really nice guy.”

“I like Bill,” he promised.

And in 1998, Higgins’ cuddly-bear politics attracted the attention of Atlanta broadcast media when he and Democrat Bill Chandler seemed to be the only area politicians who refused to sling mud.

It is partly this quality in Higgins that Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield attributes to the cohesive nature of the county school board. More often than not, the board votes unanimously.

For all but one of his years serving on the county’s board of education, Higgins has presided over those votes as chairman.

He’s led the group through controversial votes just as he would routine decisions and allowed little room for public displays of inner tension, Schofield said.

That’s not to say the board escapes tension. Most of it, however, comes from parents concerned for one or more of the school system’s nearly 26,000 students.

Learning to identify and deal with those concerned parents was a lesson Higgins learned early in his first term as Hall County struggled to create room in high schools that had become overburdened by suburban sprawl.

Since Higgins was first elected, the school system has spent more than $121 million on buildings alone to meet those growth demands. And every time a new school opened, Higgins and the board were faced with redrawing school boundaries and deciding which neighborhoods would belong to each school.

Those redistricting decisions, Higgins said, sometimes carried racial implications and were always the most difficult for him.
Drawing the lines for South Hall schools was one of Higgins’ first challenges on the board in 1999 before the original Flowery Branch High School building — now C.W. Davis Middle School — opened.

Unhappy parents called constantly, some claiming Higgins had ruined the value of their properties. Higgins came home one day to find an angry father in his driveway waiting to talk about the changing school boundaries.

“I thought ‘Lord have mercy, what have I gotten myself into?,’” Higgins recalled.

Higgins admits the board was more work than he had expected. Still, he returned for two more terms and took his chances on a fourth.

Three consecutive terms have likely earned Higgins the political capital to seek another elected position, but Higgins says he has ignored others’ suggestions in the past that he seek a higher office.

The school board was where Higgins said he felt he belonged.

A man surrounded by educators nearly his entire life, Higgins refers to his stint on the board as his obligatory contribution to education and jokes about his seemingly inherited magnetism to the county’s school system. Higgins’ mother was a teacher, so were “several” aunts, a “bunch” of his cousins and a sister. His wife, Connie, still teaches in the county.

“I wasn’t smart enough to be a teacher, so I’m on the school board,” he said.

He says he often drew on the expertise of those he knew on the school system’s front lines when making decisions about its future, but ultimately, Higgins said he had to do what he thought was best for everyone.

“You have to look at the overall effect for the school system — what’s best for the school system ... and the overall big picture,” Higgins said.

And that wasn’t always the most popular decision.

In May, Higgins was part of a unanimous board decision to close Jones Elementary in Chicopee Village.
Despite neighborhood residents’ rallying cries that the school was the epicenter of the former mill community, school officials looked to the $1 million that could be saved by moving Jones students to other elementary schools during what Vice Chairman Nath Morris called an “extreme time” for education revenues.

Two months after the Jones vote, Higgins lost his bid for another term on the board.

A popular former principal of the elementary school, Bill Thompson, took the majority of Republican votes in the July primary, leaving the incumbent Higgins with a little more than 42 percent.

Thompson will assume the board’s at-large post in January.

And while it is unclear whether his decision to close Jones might have hurt Higgins chances, the outgoing chairman says he wouldn’t take it back.

Higgins said the choice was more about his need to look out for teachers’ jobs and to curtail spending than it was about furthering his political aspirations.

“That was the right thing to do,” Higgins said. “...You don’t make decisions based on being re-elected. Because I’m not a politician, you make decisions based on what’s best for the school system.”

 Higgins will hand over the gavel on Dec. 13 after the board’s final meeting of the year.

Life after that, he says, will include more free time and less stress. Other than that, Higgins isn’t sure exactly what’s next.

He said he imagines he’ll eventually be led into another service role.

And while Higgins hasn’t quite ruled out another bid at elected office, he says he’s fine with putting his energies toward nonprofit work and leaving politics to the politicians.

“I think you should still keep giving to your community,” Higgins said. “That’s important, giving your time and your effort — whether it’s serving your school board or somewhere else.”