APS Board Chairman Reuben R. McDaniel III listens to questions about class size during the Atlanta Public School Board Budget Meeting on Tuesday, June 25, 2013.

Candidates take aim at Atlanta school board chairman

Challengers running against Atlanta school board Chairman Reuben McDaniel are attacking him for his handling of a racism investigation and his oversight of the troubled city school district.

McDaniel faces four opponents in November’s election who claim he overreacted to accusations of racism at North Atlanta High School and mismanaged the school district as it recovers from a test cheating scandal.

However, McDaniel, an investment banker, has accused the other candidates of “political grandstanding” instead of focusing on the issues in an election that will shape the future of public education in Atlanta. All nine school board seats are up for election, seven are contested. The new board’s first priority after the election will be choosing a superintendent to replace Erroll Davis, who is retiring.

Candidates running against McDaniel for the at-large District 8 seat include former school board member and real estate developer Mark Riley, attorney Tom Tidwell, attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown and concerned citizen Dave Walker. The chairman is selected by the other board members.

McDaniel’s opponents say he shouldn’t have gotten involved in controversies at North Atlanta High, where educators were accused of racism, the school’s principal was removed last year and the new principal threatened last month to quit because of micromanagement by the school system’s central office.

“He’s lost his credibility,” said Riley, whose son graduated from North Atlanta High last school year. “There’s widespread acknowledgement across the city that we need change. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that we have an unprecedented focus on fixing our schools.”

McDaniel, who filled Riley’s seat on the board four years ago when Riley unsuccessfully ran in a different district, rejected the idea that he shouldn’t have intervened at North Atlanta High.

He said he’d heard from about 50 people about racial disparities at the school, and he brought their concerns to the school district’s administration. He said he didn’t launch the racism investigation or have a role in the superintendent’s removal of the school’s former principal, Mark MyGrant.

“It’s not overreacting when there’s that type of an outcry,” said McDaniel, whose daughter is a freshman at North Atlanta High. “My opponents have their own political agenda and are using that issue to create a political football. Certainly there seems to me to be a racial tension issue at that school.”

Atlanta Public Schools’ internal investigation, released last month, found “a climate of racial tension” at North Atlanta High, but concluded educators didn’t discriminate by race. The school system looked into allegations that black students were singled out for discipline, given lower grades and discouraged from entering the International Studies/International Baccalaureate diploma program. The report said two-thirds of black students interviewed believed discrimination existed compared with 8 percent of white students.

Tidwell said the racism allegations should have been investigated before being made public since they led to the removal of MyGrant and his leadership team, hurting students who needed help from administrators as they applied for college.

“Discrimination or racism is such a loaded term, especially in this city,” said Tidwell, whose children are in fourth and sixth grades in Atlanta public schools. “It’s like screaming ‘fire’ in a theater. If you say that and it’s not there, you’ve done irreparable harm, and that’s what I think Reuben did in this case.”

Brown said McDaniel spread rumors about racism without first determining whether they were accurate.

“This whole incident was incredibly damaging to our children, our teachers and certainly to the administrators whose reputations were dragged through the mud for what turned out to be no reason,” said Brown, whose son is a senior at North Atlanta High. “It’s grown-ups behaving badly and children getting hurt. That seems to be the motto of APS over the last four years.”

Walker, who describes himself as the “agitator” in the race, said both McDaniel and Riley lack knowledge about the basics of educating children.

“We need a total rebuild of the Atlanta school board absent of the business interests,” Walker said.