Atlanta school board candidates face off in first debate of 2023

Seats in odd-numbered districts are up for reelection
A projection of the candidates for the Atlanta school board shines on the wall of the Ali Events space before a debate Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.   (Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A projection of the candidates for the Atlanta school board shines on the wall of the Ali Events space before a debate Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.   (Ben Gray /

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify a quote from one of the candidates.

Four Atlanta school board members squared off against challengers in a debate Wednesday that focused on student achievement, establishing equity across the district and the board’s recent decision not to extend former Superintendent Lisa Herring’s contract.

Here are some of the major issues discussed at the event, hosted by the nonprofit Equity in Education. (District 1 incumbent Katie Howard is running unopposed. William “Will” Sardin, an at-large District 7 candidate, did not attend the debate. These races are nonpartisan.)


According to the most recent Georgia Milestones data, 56.5% of Atlanta’s third graders are reading at or above grade level. District 3 incumbent Michelle Olympiadis said the district should consider implementing Orton-Gillingham, a program often used to teach students with dyslexia, at all schools.

“At Morningside Elementary School, when I was working with the PTA there, we implemented Orton-Gillingham … that showed improvement not just for kids who needed (the program), but even for the kids who are doing great,” she said.

Her opponent, Ken Zeff, said APS should develop a comprehensive literacy plan.

“(We should) train the teachers, train the instructional coaches, train the assistant principals, principals, train the bus driver, (so that) everyone understands that we’re passing a comprehensive science-based instructional strategy for literacy,” said Zeff, executive director of the education nonprofit Learn4Life, which works with metro Atlanta school districts to improve outcomes. He also has been an interim superintendent of Fulton County Schools.

Candidate for at-large District 7 seat Alfred "Shivy" Brooks (second from left) called out the current Atlanta school board at a debate Wednesday for having a "courage deficit" regarding their public votes. (Ben Gray /

Credit: Ben Gray

icon to expand image

Credit: Ben Gray

The budget

The District 5 candidates went back and forth over who was more qualified to provide oversight of the district’s $1.6 billion budget.

Incumbent Erika Mitchell said she’s served on the board’s policy committee as well as several other education boards. Her opponent, Raynard Johnson, pointed out that she hasn’t served on the board’s budget committee while touting his own financial background.

“I have over four decades of experience in IT software development in which I have managed multimillion-dollar projects with hundreds of people reporting in matrix-managed organization,” he said.

“I have been an active board member and prioritizing and building up parameters for a budget allocation,” Mitchell responded.

Board transparency

Some candidates questioned the courage of incumbents on board votes. School board members have said little publicly about the decision not to renew Herring’s contract.

At-large District 9 incumbent Jessica Johnson said the board has done a good job of keeping the community informed, noting records of board votes can be found on the district’s website.

Johnson’s opponent, Nkoyo Effiong Lewis, said, “I would love to see the board operate with the courage of their convictions, to share what their decisions are on matters where they are or are not necessarily unanimous.”

Tamara Jones, who currently holds the at-large District 7 seat, said the board could do a better job communicating its process.

“I want to make that much more clear to the public and how the board actually operates and people don’t think we’re just going off and making decisions in a vacuum,” she said.

Her challenger, Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, said the current board has a “courage deficit.”

“When our board members decide to vote unanimously, essentially they are hiding their intentions,” he said. “We need people (who are) courageous enough to tell you exactly how they feel about something.”

What’s next?

The Atlanta school board race is the only election on the ballot this fall. Early voting begins Oct. 16. Election Day is Nov. 7.