Georgia school superintendent may face reelection challengers

Pat Sims votes at the Buckhead Library located at 269 Buckhead Avenue NE in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 as early voting locations opened across Georgia on Tuesday, kicking off a three-week sprint before election day on Nov. 2. The primary election for the next Georgia schools superintendent is set for May. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Pat Sims votes at the Buckhead Library located at 269 Buckhead Avenue NE in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 as early voting locations opened across Georgia on Tuesday, kicking off a three-week sprint before election day on Nov. 2. The primary election for the next Georgia schools superintendent is set for May. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The leader of Georgia’s education department has begun campaigning for a third term in office, and may face at least two challengers during the primary and general elections next year.

Richard Woods, in his seventh year as state school superintendent, said he started campaigning in the spring but was held back by an aggressive case of COVID-19 in July.

He will likely face a challenge in the general election by Democrat Dr. Jaha Howard, a dentist who serves on the Cobb County school board.

Howard said he currently plans to run but added, “Nothing’s official until we file in the spring.”

Official candidate qualification is in early March for the primary election in May and the general election the following November.

The state school superintendent leads the Georgia Department of Education, and is responsible for monitoring schools and distributing state and federal funding to them. The superintendent must ensure schools are following the law and state Board of Education rules, are being competently administered and are using money for the intended purpose. The superintendent can also make recommendations to the state board.

Howard said he was prompted to run by the “casual safety response” of schools to the delta variant of COVID-19 and the response to the “manufactured CRT outrage.”

Howard, who is Black, was referring to the rebellion against critical race theory in some school districts and by the state school board’s decision in June to pass a resolution limiting classroom discussions about race and controversial events. (Unlike local school boards, which are elected, the state board is appointed by governors.)

He has been at odds with the Cobb schools administration and other members of his majority white school board over race and pandemic safety, criticizing the district’s mask-optional policy and the board’s approach to addressing racism. (The board adopted a resolution Thursday stating formal opposition to antisemitism and to racism, but Howard and another Black board member voted against it, saying they were not adequately consulted and that they wanted a commitment to rename schools named after Confederate leaders.)

ExploreCobb school board passes antisemitism, racism resolution over Black members’ objections

Woods said his main issues are addressing COVID-19 -related learning gaps, increasing graduation rates, drawing more people into the teaching profession and giving high school graduates more work and educational options.

The Republican could also face a challenge in the GOP primary. His predecessor, John Barge, left office to run an unsuccessful campaign for governor against Nathan Deal.

After working as a superintendent of a school district on the Georgia coast, Barge has retired and is back home in Rome.

He and Howard were the only potential challengers who had filed the paperwork required to raise campaign funds as of Friday afternoon.

Barge said he took this step as a bookkeeping requirement. He said he forgot to file a mandatory report on his pre-existing campaign fund, and when he tried to file it recently he discovered that the Georgia Campaign Finance System had changed its online platform. He had to create a new account and to do so he had to select an upcoming election, so he picked the superintendent’s race.

Barge told The Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this month that he had no plans for a comeback attempt, but when contacted on Thursday he said he was still weighing whether to put elected life behind him.

“I still think I’ve got a lot to give, so it’s something that I’ve been weighing and there’s no decision at this point,” he said. Campaigns are becoming increasingly difficult with the sometimes ugly criticism on social media, he said. “So it’s a tough decision to make, but when it comes to education I’m pretty passionate.”

Neither Barge nor Howard have filed a financial report yet. Woods’ latest report, from June, indicated that he contributed $25 to his own campaign and spent nearly $1,300 in May and June, on gas, pizza, business cards and other campaign expenses, including a $500 table at the state GOP convention.

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