GOP lawmakers OK bill to make Gwinnett school board elections nonpartisan

Rep. Chuck Efstration (left), R-Dacula, and Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, huddle on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Later in the day, Efstration presented Senate Bill 369, which would make the Gwinnett Board of Education elections nonpartisan. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Rep. Chuck Efstration (left), R-Dacula, and Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, huddle on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Later in the day, Efstration presented Senate Bill 369, which would make the Gwinnett Board of Education elections nonpartisan. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

The Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday voted 95-61 for a bill to make Gwinnett County Board of Education elections nonpartisan.

If Gov. Brian Kemp signs the bill into law, the names of school board candidates would appear on voter ballots without party affiliation. In addition, school board elections would be held during the primary elections, removing the board seats from the November general ballot.

Two current posts — held by Democrat Everton Blair Jr. and Republican Steve Knudsen — would be decided on May 24. Blair is not running for reelection, as he is a candidate for state school superintendent.

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The Senate signed off on the change earlier this month.

The legislation is needed “to remove partisan politics from the classroom,” Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, said Thursday.

But 10 other state representatives from Gwinnett County — a majority of the 18 — spoke against the measure, saying it usurps the will of voters.

“I just want to politely ask you to leave Gwinnett alone,” said Rep. Gregg Kennard, D-Lawrenceville. He grew up in the community when it was largely white and wondered how Republicans would react when the increasingly diverse populace shifted the power toward Democrats.

“There was no coup,” he said. “It happened at the ballot box.”

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About 40% of Georgia’s 180 school districts hold partisan elections. The rest, using a law that allows for local control, don’t let candidates identify with a political party.

Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, said that over 70% of Gwinnett Republicans opposed making school board elections nonpartisan in a 2020 primary referendum question.

“I have not seen a single solitary shred of evidence to show that the sentiment of voters has changed,” she said.

ExploreGeorgia Senate OKs making Gwinnett school board elections nonpartisan

Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, the lead co-sponsor of the bill, held hearings last year about a proposal to make all school boards nonpartisan. But in the end, he and his party aimed only at Gwinnett County, which started trending Democratic several years ago.

The political shift led to loss of control over the five-member school board when Democrats Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins joined Blair last year. As the board majority, they voted to end the contract of longtime Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks nearly a year early.

Dixon has said Wilbanks’ ousting spurred the legislation. When presenting the bill to the Senate in early February, he said the school district was “falling off a cliff” under Democrats’ leadership.

Mary Kay Murphy, a Republican on the school board since the 1990s, said she’s never seen school board decision so politicized. Asked for examples, Murphy, who is up for re-election in 2024, also cited Wilbanks ousters as a same top concern.

Murphy said Gwinnett has been a conservative and stable community despite rapid growth and challenges such as the pandemic.

“We’ve been able to weather those storms in the past by keeping our eye on things that really mattered,” she said, “and I think that’s where the nonpartisan is perhaps going to help us find our way again.”