Gwinnett school board candidates outline divergent visions for the district

While the race is nonpartisan, political sides have formed in the District 3 race
Shana White and Steve Gasper are vying for the District 3 seat on Gwinnett County's school board, which has long been held by Mary Kay Murphy.

Credit: Courtesy of campaign pages

Credit: Courtesy of campaign pages

Shana White and Steve Gasper are vying for the District 3 seat on Gwinnett County's school board, which has long been held by Mary Kay Murphy.

Gwinnett County’s school board District 3 will have a new representative for the first time since the mid-’90s: Either Steve Gasper, a business owner who’s frequently spoken critically of board decisions in recent years, or Shana White, an education professional who previously taught in Gwinnett schools, will serve the district.

They are vying to fill the seat of Mary Kay Murphy, who did not seek reelection after nearly three decades on the board. Gasper received 36% of votes and White received 21% in the May 21 election. Three other candidates were on the ballot. The runoff between Gasper and White is Tuesday.

The vote may affect the outcome of split decisions in the future. Murphy is part of a board majority that more frequently goes with the recommendations of staff members. Additionally, the question of leadership may be on the minds of the board in the wake of Superintendent Calvin Watts interviewing for the top job in Atlanta Public Schools and quickly withdrawing from the process once the news became public.

District 3 occupies a swath of northwest Gwinnett that stretches from Norcross up to Buford. The race is nonpartisan, and the candidates have not leaned into political issues, for the most part. But political figures and organizations have taken sides in the race.

Gasper’s campaign website lists endorsements from Gwinnett Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick, state Sen. Clint Dixon and state Reps. David Clark and Matt Reeves. Dixon notably led the effort in 2022 to make school board races in Gwinnett County nonpartisan.

White has shared on social media endorsements from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Moms Demand Action, the Georgia Working Families Party and the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. The Gwinnett County Association of Educators has also endorsed White.

Both candidates tout teaching experience that would inform their work on the board. White was a teacher and coach for 15 years, including a decade in Gwinnett. Gasper taught as a long-term elementary school substitute for three years in California.

They’ve also drawn criticism for past social media posts.

In late May of 2023 — between Memorial Day and Pride Month — Gasper shared a meme stating military personnel who die in service “get one day” while “they,” referring to a group of people wearing colorful outfits and heavy makeup, “get a whole month.” Critics, including the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, have circulated the post and questioned Gasper’s ability to serve all in Gwinnett.

“That post was my commentary on another post that I had seen online meant to get people thinking about why we are focusing on identity politics and not on our veterans, who I do not think we do enough for,” Gasper said in an email. “Nevertheless, I have no problems or issues with the LGBTQIA+ community and will serve them with the same level of commitment that I will for everyone else in Gwinnett County.”

Some, mainly in conservative circles, have circulated posts by White mainly from 2020 and 2021 that call out systemic racism and white supremacy. Her critics call the posts anti-white, non-inclusive and radical.

White said she has strived to be inclusive throughout her career and would bring that experience to the board. She called inclusivity “an active process of getting to know the various identities of students in your classroom and intentionally respecting and recognizing each and every race, religion, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic background or ethnicity.” She said that approach in turn helps students better understand and empathize with people different from themselves.

Here is where the candidates stand on several key issues. Responses have been edited for clarity, length and style.

Proposed policy change

Gasper: One policy that I would like to see amended is the board’s Theory of Action for Change to Improve Student Behavior and Outcomes. I do believe in some level of restorative practices in which a student that breaks a rule, understands what it is they did, but that student also must understand there are real consequences associated with this infraction. If there are no real consequences, students are more inclined to continue the bad behavior. When disruptive students are being allowed back in the classroom on a regular basis, this prevents each and every student from learning equally. The teacher is constantly forced to address the discipline issue. We must empower our local school leaders with as much support as we can give them to effectively address issues. This is not setting them up for success.

White: Our equity policy needs to be amended because it is only one paragraph right now. To have a true equity policy that is impactful, you must have an equity audit that gives you concrete data and thorough clarity of the inequities student groups and schools are facing so that you can implement a strategic plan that can be developed to precisely address the needs and outcomes of all students academically, mentally, socially and emotionally in schools. Additionally, with my expertise and working experience in computer science education and ethical AI, I would like to lead the adoption of an AI policy, for GCPS on the responsible usage of generative AI tools by students and teachers to enhance teaching and learning for all.

Reflecting community concerns

Gasper: In my 23 years in the corporate space, I’ve learned collaboration and negotiation skills that have proven to be effective to me in business and I know will help if I’m elected to the board. Over the past several years, I have built working relationships with several current board members, knowing that I might be working with them someday. I’ve also met with the current superintendent as well as other senior district leaders, building collaborative bridges to be able to continue to work effectively in the future.

White: The recent adoption of strategic waivers by the current board is very troubling because it continues to allow large class sizes (which are a major concern for teachers and educational staff) to continue in the county for the next several years. Additionally, I would like to build more robust career, technical and agricultural education programming and support districtwide so that all students can experience and participate in quality computer science education, engineering and other CTAE content areas that will better prepare all students to succeed in real-world careers and to thrive in our technology-driven world.

Equity efforts

Gasper: I think that current initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion are satisfactory. We must understand that no two people are created equally and God put us in this world to love everyone the same. I go to church every Sunday and that is how I think and feel. Every person in our schools that I’ve interacted with so far does an excellent job making everyone feel welcome and included.

White: District initiatives on diversity are better as Gwinnett County’s demographics continue to shift into more diverse identities that can be seen and celebrated within our schools. Inclusion efforts can be improved at the school site level so that all students, teachers and educational support professionals feel that they belong and are welcome members of their school community regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious beliefs or socioeconomic status. Equity efforts should also improve as we are not meeting the diverse needs of all students by providing each and every student adequate resources and support to thrive and experience success as evidenced by our district’s graduation rates, student achievement data and attendance/discipline numbers.

Teacher retention

Gasper: Our district needs to do a better job at listening to our teachers. They are on the front lines each and every day, working with students, parents, administrators, etc. They possess the most valuable information about our schools and bring forward new ideas on how to improve. Teacher recruitment, retention and morale is near and dear to me, especially as a former teacher. We need to remove barriers that prevent them from teaching every student equally. Discipline issues are a big reason we are seeing teacher burnout and the desire to leave GCPS. I want to work to continue to remove these barriers and also provide our teachers with the most competitive compensation package out there. Currently, over 30% of our contracted teachers have zero to one years of teaching experience. We must do better in this area.

White: As a former certified teacher of 10 years in GCPS, there are several items that I think will positively impact teachers in schools. Competitive teacher pay that aligns with the increased cost of living, ample planning time for all teachers, increased teacher autonomy, allotment of more resources and support related to curriculum, differentiation, multi-language learners, and inclusive pedagogy as well as incentives for teacher work outside of contract hours.

Assessment of leadership

Gasper: Over the past five years, the direction of GCPS has definitely changed significantly. We acquired a new superintendent after a very long tenure of our prior superintendent. Our board is showing more diverse representation, as our county is one of the most diverse in the nation. But we are also seeing an increase in middle layers of senior district leadership and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on more chiefs and deputies. That money needs to come from somewhere and it appears it’s coming from the classroom level, negatively affecting programs already in place. Our teacher retention and recruitment is down overall. Our discipline referrals are up. Our graduation rates have fallen below the state average. Our superintendent is the CEO of this organization and is accountable for these metrics. GCPS is a world-class school system and we must work to keep it that way.

White: I would like to see more accountability and transparency of the superintendent and the operations within GCPS. I would also like to see a less top-heavy allotment of finances in the district with more money dispersed to school sites for school resources. I appreciate the increased diversity of the school board over the several years that better reflects the Gwinnett County community as well as the increased efforts around computer science education and AI by GCPS.

An under-the-radar strength

Gasper: I believe a strength happening right now in GCPS is the success at South Gwinnett High School with regards to their discipline referrals. Principal Rodney Jordan joined the school in the summer of 2023, and discipline referrals for student unexcused absences is now down 75% from the year prior. They had a zero tolerance for other serious offenses. Why? Because teachers and administrators are bringing their work into the hallways during the school day so students know they’re being monitored. Due to this, we are seeing that teacher applications to the school are up this year. This needs to be modeled across other schools, districtwide. This proves that change can happen in a positive way.

White: I believe our CTAE programming districtwide and the launch of the AI-centered Seckinger cluster are very strong and will continue to lead to successful outcomes for so many students in Gwinnett. Additionally, as a former varsity girls’ basketball head coach at Peachtree Ridge HS, I think the athletics programs in Gwinnett County continue to be top-notch and extremely successful throughout the state of Georgia, regionally in the Southeast, and even nationally.