It’s rare for one election to decide as much as Tuesday’s vote for Atlanta Board of Education, which will undergo a dramatic transformation no matter who wins.
With four current school board members stepping down, nearly half of the nine-member board is turning over before a single vote is counted. If just one incumbent loses re-election, a majority of the board will be made up of newcomers.
The winners will take on the responsibility of turning around the city’s school system after years of scandal and lackluster academic results.
The next school board will choose a new superintendent, decide on the role of charter schools and work to improve on the city’s 51 percent graduation rate. They’ll weigh how to give more schools more local control, overcome educational disparities and make kids ready for college or the workforce.
Twenty-six candidates are competing for seats on the school board, which sets education policy for the 49,000-student school district.
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“This is the election that’s going to set the tone for what Atlanta Public Schools will be,” said Tris Sicignano as she and a handful of parents discussed the election at a Grant Park coffee shop Tuesday. “We have a critical mass of involved parents.”
Parents said the election could be a turning point as the school district tries to move on from the nation’s largest cheating scandal, in which 185 teachers and administrators were accused of participating in a scheme to inflate standardized test scores. Thirty-four educators face criminal charges, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall.
Current school board members who are seeking re-election have taken the most heat. Their opponents have attacked the incumbents for participating on a board that oversaw Hall’s leadership, closed schools during a contentious redistricting process and attracted attention from the school system’s accrediting body because of their political squabbles.
“Anyone who wouldn’t consider the sad state of affairs of the school board over the recent years would have to be blind and maybe deaf,” said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, president of the pro-business Buckhead Coalition, whose political arm endorsed a slate of challengers. “There might be some sentiment there to start anew.”
But incumbents in the race have said they now work together for the betterment of students, and they’ve made progress in moving the district forward from its troubled recent history.
Seven races are contested, and two candidates didn’t draw any opposition, ensuring they’ll be elected. Those candidates are incumbent Byron Amos, who represents central Atlanta, and high school history teacher Matt Westmoreland, whose district covers east Atlanta.
Voters will be able to pick four candidates each — one from their district and three who represent the entire city.
Whichever candidates prevail will have the opportunity to set education policy for the next decade, and possibly longer, said Henry Kelly, chairman of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, which hosted several candidate forums.
“Given the number of incumbents who aren’t running and where we are with the system coming off the cheating scandal, it’s extremely important for the community to be engaged and participate in the election of a new board,” Kelly said.
Hiring a superintendent will be the board’s top priority after it takes office in January. Superintendent Erroll Davis, who previously served as chancellor for the University System of Georgia, took leadership as the state report on cheating was being released in July 2011, plans to retire.
The companies conducting a nationwide search for a superintendent have contacted school employees, university presidents, military generals, business leaders, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups and state school superintendents.
“Unfortunately, it’s hard to clean up when you’ve had a lot of bad publicity and bad things happen with the cheating scandal,” said Wendy Eley Jackson, whose son is a junior at North Atlanta High School. “You have to get a leader who can push people beyond mediocrity.”
National advocates for education reform are also paying attention to this local school board election.
Supporters of charter schools and the Teach for America program have given significant money to candidates who share their views on school choice, contributing mostly to four candidates who are TFA graduates. Those candidates — attorney Jason Esteves, Georgia State University administrator Eshé Collins, school board member Courtney English and Westmoreland — collected more than twice what the other 22 candidates have raised from outside of Georgia as of Sept. 30.
While educators across the country heard about Atlanta’s cheating case, they aren’t as aware of this election that could shape the city’s educational future, said Alan Simpson, spokesman for GreatSchools, a San Francisco-based organization that provides school information to parents.
“Local school board elections matter enormously. They’re the most important engagement parents can make in local school decisions, which have a lot of impact on students in Atlanta but also on the economy in the long term,” Simpson said.