Atlanta voters revamp city school board

Voters reshaped Atlanta’s school board Tuesday in runoff elections that ushered new leaders into an educational system scarred by scandal and academic struggles.

First-time representatives will make up two-thirds of the school board, bringing fresh ideas and change amid voters’ disgust with the direction of the 49,000-student city school district.

The board’s transformation included the ouster of Chairman Reuben McDaniel, an investment banker who lost his at-large seat Tuesday to attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown. Brown won easily with 66 percent of the vote.

Three other races — for citywide, west Atlanta and south Atlanta districts — also were decided in runoffs. In all, six out of nine board seats will be filled by newcomers.

The rookie representatives will make major decisions soon after they take office next month, setting the course of public education in the city for the foreseeable future.

They’ll hire a new superintendent, address the school system’s 51 percent graduation rate and determine how much school choice to give families in an area where 1 in 12 students are enrolled in charter schools. The re-formed board will also work to improve academics in a school district that trailed every other metro Atlanta system in the Georgia Department of Education’s ratings of public school quality.

The board’s turnover followed revelations of widespread cheating and infighting that drew the attention of the school district’s accrediting body. A state investigation in 2011 concluded that 185 teachers and administrators participated in a scheme to artificially raise standardized test scores, and the school system was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that year because of squabbles and factionalism on the board.

Voters said Tuesday they’d had enough.

“It’s time to change all of them out,” said Jayne Phillips after voting at Morris Brandon Elementary in north Atlanta. “In every case, I’ve voted against the incumbent. They’re not all crooks, but there’s dishonesty on the board.”

Board members bear responsibility for problems that occurred on their watch, said Janice Boyd, who voted at Perkerson Elementary in south Atlanta.

“A lot of the incumbents have been around through all the turmoil, and they’ve sat in their seats and watched it happen,” she said. “Sometimes you need some turnover and fresh faces.”

Most of the board’s transformation occurred not because voters threw out their representatives, but because four incumbents didn’t seek re-election. One incumbent, Brenda Muhammad, lost re-election in last month’s general election to small business owner Leslie Grant for a southeast Atlanta seat.

McDaniel was the only incumbent in the Tuesday’s runoffs, which were needed because none of the candidates in those multiway races won more than 50 percent of the vote in last month’s general election. In the other three runoffs, the current board members decided to step down rather than face voters again.

“It’s a pretty dysfunctional system,” said voter Andrew Lunde and Morris Brandon Elementary. “It’s going to take some energy to make the hard decisions. I’d like to see them cut costs and get better results without cheating. It would be nice to see a change.”

The incoming board will include four members who participated in the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities, often in charter schools. Their TFA experience increases the number of school board members who have taught in classrooms, but it also calls attention to how they’ll vote on issues concerning charter schools.

The four school board members who are TFA graduates are Courtney English, Matt Westmoreland, Jason Esteves and Eshé Collins. English and Westmoreland were elected in last month’s general election, and Esteves and Collins won runoffs Tuesday.

Esteves, an attorney, defeated education business owner Lori James with 71 percent of the vote for a citywide seat.

Collins, a program director at Georgia State University, won election over Dell Byrd, a property manager and former Fulton County Schools teacher. Collins collected 59 percent of the vote for the seat representing south Atlanta.

In west Atlanta, counseling center director Steven Lee won election with 59 percent of the vote over Mary Palmer, an academic coach.

Despite the significance of the election, voter turnout was light.

About 20 percent of registered Atlanta voters cast ballots in last month’s general election, and the runoff elections drew about 6 percent of voters, according to unofficial results.

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