Gwinnett District 4: Five candidates compete for school board seat

Candidates for the District 4 seat on the Gwinnett County school board: Adrienne Simmons, Tony Sellers, Alexis Williams, Matt Sones, and Kelly Kautz. (AJC)

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Candidates for the District 4 seat on the Gwinnett County school board: Adrienne Simmons, Tony Sellers, Alexis Williams, Matt Sones, and Kelly Kautz. (AJC)

The incumbent is not seeking reelection

The Gwinnett County Board of Education will have a new representative from District 4, the seat occupied by Everton Blair.

He previously announced that he would not seek reelection.

Five people are running for the seat: Kelly Kautz, juvenile court attorney and former Snellville mayor; Tony Sellers, a former Berkmar High School teacher; Adrienne Simmons, Georgia Department of Education assessment specialist; Matt Sones, policy analyst; and attorney Alexis Williams.

All the candidates have children in Gwinnett schools or who have graduated from the district.

Below are their answers to questions posed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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

Kautz: If elected, I would have many priorities. I hope to bring experience and stability to our board. I want to put an end to blanket, one-size-fits-all policies. Our school system is too diverse for that way of thinking. We must use common sense and return to the basics of education. I want to acknowledge that college is not the right option for every student and restore vocational education in local schools. I want to improve our special education services and streamline the IEP process. I want to be a voice for not just our children, but also parents and the teachers. However, I do not believe that we can address any of these issues until we have highly qualified teachers in place to work with our children. So we must address the mass exodus of teachers that is occurring. To do this, we must provide pay incentives, not just for new teachers, but also veterans and improve the atmosphere/working environment for teachers.

Sellers: We have some work to do on smaller class sizes, reducing the number of standardized tests, increasing equity and lifting up the voices of students, parents, and teachers. Oh, we also need to keep the teachers we have. Many are leaving the district or the profession entirely, and fewer college students are becoming teachers.

Simmons: In Gwinnett, we currently have about 20% of students not graduating on time. This is a serious problem. If we want Gwinnett to remain a community where people want to live, work, and play, we need our students graduating. We want our youth employed, enrolled in post-secondary school, or acting as a productive citizen in some capacity. Otherwise, we are at-risk of experiencing an increase in crime. We need to do a better job of engaging our students, so they are excited about school. As a board member, I will advocate for innovative approaches to learning as well as resources to support with mental and emotional well-being (of both students and staff). I will furthermore champion policies that cultivate a culture of inclusivity where all stakeholders experience a sense of belonging and are therefore willing to put forth their best effort.

Sones: Since day one, my campaign has been about improving academic achievement at Gwinnett County Public Schools. I often cite the recent U.S. News and World Report that shows that only about 44% of GCPS High School students are proficient in math while 60% are proficient in reading. College readiness for the district is at 36%. All of these numbers are unacceptable. My No. 1 priority is to improve all those scores. Until we get the basics right, I don’t think we should be focusing on much else.

Williams: My top priority as a board member is three-fold:

1. Ensure we have safe learning environments that are conducive to student growth and development, supported by trained Student Resource Officer professionals, and enhanced by an increased number of school counselors as an additional form of intervention in the disciplinary process, to help mitigate some of the behavioral issues that are present in our schools.

2. Ensuring that our children are mastering the BASICS of education — reading, writing, arithmetic, STEM, and civics education so that we can move up from the 66th spot in education, back to the top where we belong, and more importantly, so our children have a solid foundation from which to spring from to serve as leaders on a global landscape.

3. To find creative ways to help retain our quality educators here in Gwinnett County Schools, because when we address this growing exodus of our quality teachers out of the county, and find ways and viable incentives to retain them here in Gwinnett County, as my educational think-rank is designed to do, our children win — because they benefit from the countless hours of these teachers’ experience, creativity, and passion for teaching; which enables our children to receive a “world-class” education that they rightly deserve.

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?

Kautz: I do not support teaching CRT in primary or secondary schools. I do not believe it was developed for that. I do not believe that CRT is currently being taught in GCPS. I believe that CRT is a hot-button issue and that by using it as a reference point, you automatically upset or dissuade a large portion of the population and you cannot solve problems like that. I do support teaching facts to our students that fit into the AKS standards, including facts on Georgia history. I believe that it is the school’s job to teach students facts and how to find answers/problem solve, but not what those answers should be (unless it is a math problem with only one right answer). It is the function of education to teach children the concept of how to think, not what to think — that would be indoctrination, not education.

Sellers: As a social studies teacher of U.S. History, Political Science, and Economics, I know that some subjects can be challenging. Junior- and senior-level students that I taught needed to grapple with the ideas of who we are as a country. They did so very well. Gwinnett teachers are guided by the AKS (Academic Knowledge & Skills) Curriculum. Teachers teach those key ideas within each subject. Such “divisive concepts” as critical race theory, banned books, etc., are not used in GCPS. I doubt that the Gwinnett community would support teaching such concepts, since they are usually found in certain academic areas in college. I do worry that banning topics and books will narrow the thinking and discussion in high school.

Simmons: For as long as I can remember, Georgia has embraced the idea of teaching students to be critical thinkers. To reach that end, we must equip our youth with knowledge and provide them with opportunities to think critically. We should intentionally educate our learners on opposing viewpoints and expect our learners to form personal opinions. While I agree that some topics are not age-appropriate for discussion in K-12 settings, I do not agree that the broad topic of race should be off limits. Students learn about slavery and the Civil War as a part of the approved Georgia curriculum. If we trust our educators to professionally engage learners in these topics, I am unclear why we do not trust educators to discuss other topics related to race. Students are likely having conversations about race (or at least reading others’ comments about race) via social media already. I think schools should be more proactive in embracing current events and exploring varied perspectives with students in a safe space and in a safe way. Let me be clear in asserting that no classroom discussion/assignment should EVER create an environment where someone no longer experiences a sense of belonging. I trust our educators and school leaders to be professionals in crafting learning opportunities that engage students in critical thinking on issues of relevance.

Sones: I think any effort to limit discussions on most topics, including race, is a bad idea. Rather, I think it is important to discuss race, and other potentially controversial topics in a way that promotes mutual understanding and allows for the expression of multiple viewpoints. I know that discussing race or many other controversial topics can be difficult and even uncomfortable, but that’s no reason to prohibit their discussion in schools. Discussion of these topics should always be age-appropriate, however. To get a better understanding of the new law prohibiting the use of “divisive concepts,” I recently read the provisions of the Protect Students First Act and although I’m no legal expert, it appears to me that this law doesn’t actually prohibit the discussion of these concepts. Here is a quote from the actual text of the Protect Students First Act: “Nothing in this Code section shall be construed or applied to prohibit the discussion of divisive concepts, as part of a larger course of instruction, in a professionally and academically appropriate manner and without espousing personal political beliefs.” This is consistent with my own belief that schools can and should teach about controversial topics in a way that does not foster division.

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Williams: Correction: Lawmakers did not limit discussion of race in schools. They did however work to pass legislation that would protect our children from political propaganda that seeks to promote lies that would be detrimental and harmful. Recent bills were introduced to prohibit the fraudulent teaching that one race/sex is inherently superior to another; one race, such as Blacks, or sex, such as females, is inherently inferior to another race or sex; and that white children should be held responsible for the racist actions of their ancestors. These fraudulent teachings are the tenets of the divisive Critical Race Theory.

I am all for our students understanding and being taught our history — the good, bad, and the ugly. I believe strongly in full disclosure. After all, if we don’t know our history, we are likely to repeat it. However, proponents of CRT teach Divisive Concepts that one race (white) is inherently superior to another race, (Black) — who will always be inferior based on the color of their skin. CRT also teaches that the United States is fundamentally racist and assigns fault and blame to whites simply because they have less melanin in their skin than Blacks and claims that because persons are born “white,” they consciously and subconsciously are inherently racist and inclined to oppress Blacks and individuals of other races. We should never seek to place the burden of guilt on the backs of innocent children, as a form of “Reparation” for the sins of others. This is wrong. We cannot use racism to eradicate racism — CRT is really racism in reverse!