4 Atlanta school board races appear headed toward runoffs

The election of a new Atlanta school board proved so competitive Tuesday that runoffs will be needed to decide four seats.

With 26 candidates running for nine seats, it’s hardly a surprise that candidates in multiway contests couldn’t muster majorities needed to win outright. Instead, voters will go back to the polls for runoffs Dec. 3 if preliminary returns hold.

Among the toss-ups is a tight race for the citywide seat held by Board of Education Chairman Reuben McDaniel, who will face attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown in a runoff. McDaniel received 37 percent of the vote, trailed by Brown with 26 percent.

Small-business owner Leslie Grant defeated Brenda Muhammad, who has served on the board for 14 years, in the contest to represent east Atlanta. Grant won with 57 percent of the vote.

Incumbent Courtney English was victorious over Nisha Simama, an administrator at the private Paideia School in another citywide race. English garnered 61 percent of the vote.

In north Atlanta, incumbent Nancy Meister fended of a challenge from film consultant Taryn Chilivis Bowman. Meister received 65 percent of the vote.

Two candidates had no opposition: newcomer Matt Westmoreland in east Atlanta and incumbent Byron Amos in central Atlanta.

Three other multicandidate races will be decided in runoffs to represent west Atlanta, southwest Atlanta and at-large seats.

Attorney Jason Esteves, who earned 34 percent support, and education business founder Lori James, who got 31 percent of the vote, emerged to compete in a runoff from a five-way race for a citywide seat.

In the west Atlanta race, academic coach Mary Palmer and counseling center director Steven Lee were the leaders in a four-way race, receiving 37 percent and 36 percent of the vote, respectively.

In southwest Atlanta, Georgia State University program director Eshé Collins will face investment property manager Dell Byrd in their runoff. Collins had 36 percent of the vote compared to Byrd’s 25 percent in a four-way race.

The eventual winners will set the course for a school district that is trying to move past the nation’s largest cheating scandal, which discredited claims of academic progress. A state investigation found that 185 Atlanta educators participated in a scheme to falsify students’ standardized test scores in 2009.

Today, the 49,000-student school system is struggling to improve student achievement and graduation rates that hover near 50 percent.

The school board election attracted the attention of voters who saw the importance of public education in the city.

“We have to do better by the children,” said Wister Cook, a retired teacher, as she cast her vote at Druid Hills Baptist Church in eastern Atlanta. “The blame could be spread around in many ways.”

With four incumbents deciding not to seek re-election, nearly half of the school board was guaranteed to be filled with new faces before a single vote was cast.

Major decisions are ahead for the newly elected board members.

Their first priority will be picking a world-class superintendent to lead the school district. Erroll Davis, who was hired more than two years ago to navigate the system in the wake of the cheating investigation, plans to retire.

The new board will determine whether to establish more charter schools in Atlanta, where 1 in 12 students are enrolled in charters. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed, and they have more flexibility to experiment with how they teach students.

Board members, who are paid about $15,000 a year, also will have to decide how to give principals more control of their schools, overcome educational disparities and prepare students for college or the workforce.