APS veteran faces political novice

The school board race in southeast Atlanta is shaping up to be an old guard vs. new blood battle.

Brenda Muhammad, the longest-serving school board member to seek re-election, is being challenged by Leslie Grant, a Grant Park mother of two and charter schools supporter.

Muhammad has been on the Atlanta Board of Education for 14 years. Grant has run and won one election, senior class president in high school.

But in a hard-fought campaign, both see advantages to their political resumes.

Grant, 47, said she brings fresh eyes, fresh ideas and a sense of urgency to tackling some of the problems she’s identified: a school board rife with dissension; a lack of community engagement; and a school system that recruits but doesn’t always support talented principals.

“If we get like-minded people who are willing to work together, then we can hire a new superintendent. And we can work with them, not fight with them, and do some amazing things,” said Grant, a former film location scout and an advocate for proper child nutrition. “But it’s going to take some new leadership to do it, and I think I’m well-suited for that.”

Muhammad, 63, is running on her record as a school board member and a 40-year resident of Atlanta who “knows the system … the people … the education politics.”

“This work is too serious for a neophyte,” said Muhammad, who founded a nonprofit advocating for victims’ rights after her son’s murder in 1989. “This is the time to move the system in a new direction. There is still work to be done, and I would appreciate a final four years to complete some of that work.”

Muhammad and Grant square off Nov. 5 in an election that could be transformational for Atlanta Public Schools, a district that lost public trust after the nation’s largest test-cheating scandal. All nine school board seats are up this year, and four incumbents are not seeking re-election.

Both candidates said the first and biggest job job facing the new board is to find a top-notch replacement for Erroll Davis. He succeeded Beverly Hall as superintendent of the district with about 50,000 students and nearly 100 schools and is planning to retire.

Muhammad and Grant each said they want to address the lack of autonomy for school leaders, as well as the district’s dismal four-year graduation rate, which was 51 percent in 2011.

Muhammad also said she wants to tackle her constituents’ concerns about large class sizes, the equity of resources and a safe school environment conducive to quality learning. Grant’s priorities include more early childhood initiatives, more innovation and a school board more focused on what’s best for the children.

The two go toe-to-toe over who is most in touch with residents of the district, which stretches from Midtown to Lakewood.

Grant contends Muhammad is not engaged or connected with the community, a charge her opponent says is untrue.

“I came to Atlanta working on political campaigns, engaged in community development, organizing communities on the southside in my role as a coordinator with former President Jimmy Carter’s Atlanta Project,” Muhammad said. “I know these communities, and I didn’t just get an interest in them or visit as a result of running for office. I am the community. I’ve been here all the time and serving.”

Muhammad touts her support for the test-cheating investigation, which she says had good and bad results.

“Good that it uncovered some ugly truths and helped us to put measures in place for it not to occur again,” she said. “Bad for relations with those we serve — many who lost faith in the system. Especially bad for incumbents running for re-election because voters are not fully aware that there are some of us who demanded transparency and a thorough investigation of the then-district leadership.”

Muhammad lives in the Woodland Hills community near Grant Park. She had three children in Atlanta Public Schools and is raising two grandsons, one who attends Maynard Jackson High and one who is at Drew Charter.

Grant was involved in the founding of both the Neighborhood Charter School in Grant Park and the Grant Park Cooperative Preschool, serving both as board member and volunteer.

She grew up in Tucker, attended public schools in DeKalb County and graduated from Berry College. She relocated to New York, where she worked for a fashion photographer and for the renowned architect Peter Eisenman. She moved back to Atlanta in 1993 and worked in film as a location scout and manager until 1999, when she had the first of her two children.

Her work as a film scout, she said, should be a plus if she’s elected to the school board.

“I had to negotiate contracts on the spot and get things done,” Grant said.