Last seat on Gwinnett school board comes down to a runoff

Adrienne Simmons (left) and Alexis Williams (right) are vying for the District 4 seat on the Gwinnett County school board in the June 21 runoff election.

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Adrienne Simmons (left) and Alexis Williams (right) are vying for the District 4 seat on the Gwinnett County school board in the June 21 runoff election.

While nonpartisan, the race carries political implications for Georgia’s largest district

The runoff election to represent District 4 on the Gwinnett County school board features an education professional endorsed by the current holder of the seat and a longtime involved parent and volunteer who believes the district is badly in need of a turnaround.

The winner of Tuesday’s runoff between Adrienne Simmons and Alexis Williams will tip the political balance of the board in Georgia’s largest school district.

As Gwinnett’s population has grown in recent decades, its politics have changed as well. The county school board has been the latest political battlefront. Gwinnett’s board became majority Democrat in 2021, and the new board leadership voted to terminate the contract of longtime Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.

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The Georgia Legislature changed the rules in a fractious battle, led by Republican state Sen. Clint Dixon, to make Gwinnett school board races nonpartisan starting this year. Dixon said the school district was “falling off a cliff” under Democrats’ leadership. Simmons and Williams advanced from the five initial candidates in the May 24 election.

Neither Simmons nor Williams identifies a political party on their campaign websites. However, the local Democratic Party has posted on social media in support of Simmons, and the local Republican Party shared Williams’ campaign announcement.

The candidates have shared different thoughts on school safety and recent state legislation concerning how race is taught in public schools.

Simmons has worked in education for 20 years. She started as a teacher and is now an assessment specialist for the Georgia Department of Education. Everton Blair, the current District 4 representative, has endorsed Simmons. Blair was the first Black person ever elected to Gwinnett’s school board and was chair when the board voted to end Wilbanks’ contract.

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Simmons wants to promote innovative learning methods and ways to support teachers to encourage them to stay in the profession.

“We need to ensure that the social, emotional and mental health of our teachers, the physical health of our teachers, is in place so that they’re showing up ready to teach our kids from day to day and passionate about it,” Simmons said at a recent forum hosted by the Gwinnett County NAACP.

Williams, an attorney, touts her volunteer experience over about 20 years as a parent in the district and her work in nonprofit programs for youth. She said Gwinnett schools are “dangerously off course” at the NAACP forum.

Shortly after launching her candidacy, Williams’ campaign website stated, “I can’t stand by as social emotional learning, critical race theory, comprehensive sexual education and mandates are put above the safety and education of children.”

Like many people, Williams and Simmons have turned attention to school safety since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Williams said Gwinnett needs more school resource officers and suggested providing teachers with “non-lethal defense tools.” She said schools should have only one door for visitors and break rooms for local police officers.

Simmons believes more gun restrictions are necessary. She criticized Gov. Brian Kemp for approving legislation allowing for concealed carry without a permit, calling it “an intolerable act of disservice” that makes it “easier for our children to become victims of mass shootings.”

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Williams said the recent state legislation to limit discussion of divisive concepts will “protect our children from political propaganda that seeks to promote lies that would be detrimental and harmful.” She’s railed against tenets of critical race theory.

Simmons said the divisive concepts legislation displays distrust of teachers.

“Students are likely having conversations about race, or at least reading others’ comments about race, via social media already,” she said. “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.”