Outgoing longtime Gwinnett school board member endorses potential successor

At least five people are vying for the seat
Mary Kay Murphy has served on the Gwinnett County school board for nearly three decades. She announced she will not seek reelection, ending her tenure in December of 2024. (Courtesy of Mary Kay Murphy)

Credit: Courtesy of Mary Kay Murphy

Credit: Courtesy of Mary Kay Murphy

Mary Kay Murphy has served on the Gwinnett County school board for nearly three decades. She announced she will not seek reelection, ending her tenure in December of 2024. (Courtesy of Mary Kay Murphy)

Longtime Gwinnett County school board member Mary Kay Murphy, who has voted along with the majority of the five-member board on recent key issues, has endorsed Yanin Cortes, the co-owner of local Cuban restaurants, in the upcoming election for the District 3 seat.

Murphy, who often cautions against change from past practices in the district, announced last month that she will not seek reelection, stepping down from the board when her term finishes at the end of 2024. She is in her seventh term and 28th year on the board.

“I believe that Yanin Cortes stands out as the best choice for the office,” Murphy said in a news release Monday evening. “She has the character, qualities and temperament needed to make substantial contributions to the Gwinnett Board of Education and its schools and communities.”

Murphy noted Cortes, a first-generation American, “understands the pivotal role that earning a high school diploma and securing a college degree play in opening doors for students and ensuring their success.”

Cortes and her husband founded and operate multiple locations of Mojitos Cuban restaurants. Her website states she formerly taught at Shiloh High School in southwest Gwinnett County.

“To achieve success for our students, we as parents, teachers, members of communities and residents of Gwinnett County must come together for our children and provide them with the tools and opportunities they need to succeed,” Cortes’ campaign website states.

Cortes is one of at least five candidates expected to run for the seat in District 3. Qualifying for candidates begins March 4 and ends March 8.

The election in District 3 is one of three school board races this year in Gwinnett, Georgia’s largest school district.

The upcoming elections have major implications on board operations — the elections four years ago caused a shift from Republican to Democratic majority. The new majority voted to end the contract of 25-year Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks a year early, leading Republicans in the state Legislature to make the board nonpartisan.

On split decisions, the current majority is typically Board Chair Steve Knudsen, Murphy and Vice Chair Karen Watkins. Board members Adrienne Simmons and Tarece Johnson-Morgan have wanted to revisit policies to address equity and the hiring process, but have been unsuccessful.

Murphy is one of several board members who’ve talked at length in recent meetings about their challenges finding consensus. She said during December’s meeting that disagreements were impeding their progress.

“In my opinion, our board is in dire need of having some winning experiences, and it will give us the courage to move forward,” Murphy said.

Watkins, the District 1 representative, and Johnson-Morgan, who represents District 5, are up for reelection. Gwinnett voters will select their school board representatives on May 21. If no candidates in a race receive a majority of votes, the two highest finishers in that race will have a runoff on June 18.

A crowded field:

The following people have announced campaigns to run in District 3.

Kirk Buis taught in Gwinnett high schools for 30 years and has since worked as a substitute teacher.

Domonique Cooper is highly involved with Jackson Elementary School’s PTA and has operated businesses and nonprofits focused on education and parent and student engagement.

Yanin Cortes co-founded and continues to operate Mojitos Cuban restaurants with her husband. She is also a former Gwinnett County teacher.

Steve Gasper is a sales director for a medical technology company. He has spoken at meetings on several topics, including to advocate for more specific hiring policy procedures and against changing the sex education curriculum.

Demetrius Nelson has taught in several school districts, including Gwinnett. He runs a business that seeks to inspire and train teachers.