Gwinnett District 2: Knudsen faces challenger in school board race

Michael Rudnick is running against incumbent Steve Knudsen for a District 2 seat on the Gwinnett County school board. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Michael Rudnick is running against incumbent Steve Knudsen for a District 2 seat on the Gwinnett County school board. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Steve Knudsen is seeking a second term on the Gwinnett County school board.

His opponent, Michael Rudnick, has become one of the board’s most visible and vocal critics of the board over the last year.

Knudsen won his seat as a Republican in 2018. Rudnick identifies as a Republican on his campaign social media.

The candidates’ political affiliation won’t be listed on the May 24 ballot. That’s because of a new Georgia law that makes Gwinnett County school board elections nonpartisan.

Knudsen, the board’s vice chair and president of a metal manufacturing company, has said the board should leave shaping policy to education professionals working in the district. He’s quick to tout successes in Gwinnett, arguing the district needs continued and steady leadership.

Rudnick, fleet manager for Lawrenceville, often speaks at school board meetings to advocate for special education programs. He also spoke out against the mask mandate that the district had in place most of the school year. In his campaign, he’s said the district is going in the wrong direction and needs to be turned around.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the candidates five questions. Their answers are published in full below.

AJC: Board members and district leaders often discuss equity. Should equity be a guiding principle of the school district? How should it be a factor in schools?

Knudsen: Equity is the new term that is being used within education. Oftentimes new movements will try to change the language or the meaning of words to control the narrative. If “equity” means that we work diligently to provide the same high level of opportunity to all students and close gaps that might prohibit that, then fine, use the term “equity.” An audit was put in place under the last superintendent that has mostly found that GCPS has followed “equity” even though it wasn’t always referred to that way. As long as at the end of the day if we use “equity” to pursue excellence and closing gaps for success beyond graduation, I’m fine with it. If “equity” means only focusing on the success of certain groups of students, then it’s not really “equity,” is it?

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District 2 candidate Steve Knudsen speaks during a candidate forum for the Gwinnett County school board at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Duluth, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

District 2 candidate Steve Knudsen speaks during a candidate forum for the Gwinnett County school board at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Duluth, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
District 2 candidate Steve Knudsen speaks during a candidate forum for the Gwinnett County school board at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Duluth, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Rudnick: I believe that all students and staff should have equal opportunity to succeed. When we start looking at having the same result for everyone, I do not believe that adequately prepares our students for success after they leave GCPS. And preparing students for the next level has always been what GCPS did very well as evidenced by the number of kids that go on to college, the academies, the military and trade schools. In a system as large as GCPS, there will always be areas of improvement in academics, discipline, and opportunities. I think we should focus on the clusters that may need more AP (Advanced Placement) classes or ideas on how to work with the parents to improve parent involvement as two examples. One of the successes of GCPS is the involvement of the parents as volunteers. As the diversity of the system changed, I think that is probably one area that we didn’t keep up with as well. How can we work with parents that may have multiple jobs or do not speak the language to get them involved in a way that works for them so they feel a part of the school community?

AJC: Republican lawmakers worked this year to limit discussions of race in schools and prohibit “divisive concepts.” What are your thoughts on those efforts and the role of public schools in educating students about potentially controversial topics?

Knudsen: There is no reason in education to avoid controversial topics. What has made some topics controversial is the one-sided approach that pits certain groups of students against each other. I agree with the intent to avoid “divisive topics” but not if that means eliminating disagreement. Education is about “how” to learn, not necessarily “what” to learn. There is certainly plenty of “what” that is needed in the pursuit of “how” and we have to be able to present topics in a way that allows for disagreement without divisiveness.

Rudnick: Controversial can have different meanings to different people. Schools in my opinion need to not necessarily steer clear of controversial topics but make sure that what is being discussed is age appropriate. And if you wonder if you should be teaching it, you probably shouldn’t be. There is only so much time in a day for a teacher to teach. We need to figure out ways to reduce their non-teaching loads so they can focus on what they love and that is teaching. Reducing class sizes, along with reducing specific responsibilities in the classroom such as having to be responsible for being a therapist, psychologist, or counselor, will let them spend more time teaching. This would allow them to get kids excited about the subjects and want to learn more on their own rather than always having to hurry to teach to a test.

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District 2 candidate Michael Rudnick speaks during a candidate forum for the Gwinnett County school board at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Duluth, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

District 2 candidate Michael Rudnick speaks during a candidate forum for the Gwinnett County school board at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Duluth, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
District 2 candidate Michael Rudnick speaks during a candidate forum for the Gwinnett County school board at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Duluth, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

AJC: The state passed a parents’ bill of rights that guarantees access to classroom materials. Was this a necessary measure? Why or why not? What role should parents/guardians have in curriculum or classroom decisions?

Knudsen: Parent and community involvement have been priorities of the GCPS culture for many years. Parents have been invited to be a part of our curriculum development, our instructional materials, our school councils and our classrooms, to name a few areas, for a very long time. At a time when various state and federal mandates take more and more of our teachers’ energy, I’m not sure that these additional requirements will enhance the teaching and learning experience. Parents have always had input at GCPS and I don’t see that changing.

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Rudnick: I have no issues with this bill as it will get more parents involved in their child’s education. There should be transparency in knowing what children are being taught. Parents and teachers should be partners in a child’s education both from the academic side as well as the behavior side. When parents are involved, discipline problems can be better managed in the classroom. GCPS has always tried to encourage parent involvement with things like the GEMS committee, where parents can be involved in looking at and choosing curriculum. I have seen over the last two years what appears to be efforts by the board to silence and exclude parents, so this new law will allow parents to have transparency within their child’s education without having to go through a Freedom of Information Act to find out what is being taught.

AJC: What would be your top priority as a board member?

Knudsen: The priority of the school board member is largely defined by the Legislature and supported by the Georgia School Boards Association. We are a governance body that establishes the parameters within which our superintendent operates. Our priority is to set the metrics for accountability, hire the superintendent and keep them on track. For me, that priority is student achievement and success after graduation. That is the ultimate measurement of success for a school district. Our role as a BOE is to ensure our district policies align with this mission.

Rudnick: Have the strategic waiver for class size removed by the end of my first term.