Two Gwinnett County school board races headed to runoffs

Districts 1 and 3 will be decided June 18
Georgia voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Gwinnett will have runoffs on June 18 in two school board races. (Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Georgia voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Gwinnett will have runoffs on June 18 in two school board races. (Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Voters in Gwinnett County school districts 1 and 3 will return to the polls on June 18 to select their school board representatives.

District 1 incumbent Karen Watkins is facing Rachel Stone, who finished second in a field of three. Watkins gained about 42% of the votes and Stone about 31%, according to unofficial election results. The district occupies much of the eastern edge of the county.

District 3, situated across much of the north and west sides of Gwinnett, will have a new representative, either Steve Gasper or Shana V. White. That seat is occupied by Mary Kay Murphy, a 28-year board member who did not seek reelection.

Gasper finished in first with 36% of votes. White gained about 21% of votes, just over 1 percentage point ahead of Domonique Cooper. If the margin were a half percentage point or less, then Cooper would have the option of asking for a recount.

“Despite being short of a runoff … I extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone who provided encouragement, donations, votes and love,” Cooper said on social media. “I wish my opponents well as they head into the runoff next month and express sincere well wishes for their continued efforts.”

The runoffs will have major implications for how board votes fall in the future as Watkins and Murphy have been part of a majority bloc on the board with Chair Steve Knudsen. They’ve voted together on key issues such as preliminarily approving the budget for the upcoming fiscal year and decided against taking actions like an audit of equity practices or requesting a granular look at use of school resources. They have said those types of actions come with a price tag, take up time for district staff and veer beyond the board’s oversight role into operations in the district.

Board member Tarece Johnson-Morgan often pushes for initiatives like these, but has not rallied enough support for them to move forward. She won reelection in District 5 Tuesday, gaining a majority of votes in a field of three candidates.

All the candidates who qualified for the runoff previously participated in candidate forums hosted by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and shared insights into their vision for the district, with common threads about engaging with teachers and valuing their work.

Watkins said during the forum that experience is important. She said in her first term, she learned how “we can be good stewards of taxpayer money while ensuring our students have a high-quality education” and to trust the superintendent “to help educate us on how to use those funds.”

Stone, a government affairs professional and former teacher, has signaled she supports looking at the budget differently.

“We must prioritize allocating resources based on the unique needs of each school to ensure they can meet the needs of their students effectively,” she states on her campaign website. She also supports an equity audit: “I firmly believe that with a $3 billion budget, equity data is crucial for equitable distribution of resources.”

Gasper, who works in sales, said at the forum, “I want to do what I can to help rebuild and restore our faith and belief in this great public school system.” He’s spoken frequently at school board meetings, most recently saying the district must move away from restorative practices and work on retaining teachers. He attributed problems in the district to leadership, saying many high-level staff are out of touch with schools.

White is a former Gwinnett teacher and coach who now works for an education nonprofit. She said board members should be able to “speak up for the most marginalized in our communities” and said her classroom experience allows her to understand how policy and decisions from a high level affect teachers and students in a school. White received endorsements from groups such as the Gwinnett Association of Educators, the Progressive Change Committee and Moms Demand Action.