District 4 candidates Everton Blair, Jr. (D) (from left), Randall N. Lee (R), Chuck Studebaker (R), and Mark A. Williams (D) participate in the Gwinnett County School Board Candidate Forum at the Gwinnett Justice & Administrative Center on Monday, May 7, 2018, in Lawrenceville. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Diverse field in Gwinnett school board race could bring a first

The upcoming Gwinnett County school board election could prove to be a historic moment, amid the dramatic shift in the county’s racial makeup and complaints that elected offices don’t reflect that change.

More minority candidates than ever before are running in the primary. Two white Republicans and two black Democrats are running for each of the open seats in Districts 2 and 4.

Gwinnett has never elected a county commissioner or school board member of color even though most county residents — around 60 percent — are now minorities.

“We’re pleased to see diversity and the unique set of circumstances that opened up these seats after a quarter century,” said Julie Houk, senior special counsel for the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “But given the way that the districts are drawn these candidates face an uphill battle in the general election.”

Houk’s organization is involved in a pending lawsuit over the lack of minority representation on Gwinnett’s elected boards. The coalition of groups that sued note that while black, Latino and Asian residents outnumber whites, all election districts but one have majority white populations. They want to create at least one majority-minority commission district and two such school board districts.

At a May 7 candidate forum sponsored by Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (SToPP) and Find Your Voice: Duluth, all candidates acknowledged the importance of all constituents being fairly represented.

Everton Blair, a Democrat running in District 4, agreed with others that race shouldn’t be a factor in electing officials, but he said diversity of race, age and experience will better represent student voices.

“As a graduate of the Gwinnett County school system and a teacher, I witnessed the demographic shift and was a part of it,” he said. “One thing that’s missing currently is those voices.”

Marlyn Tillman is executive director and co-founder of SToPP, which describes its work as serving to support and strengthen educational equity while dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline in Gwinnett County. It has partnered with ACLU of Georgia, Atlanta Community Engagement Team, Interfaith Children’s Movement and Georgia State Conference NAACP to facilitate statewide forums designed to educate parents and community stakeholders.

Noting the number of minorities running in the primary, she said, “I hope that’s reflective of the election outcome. I hope the Gwinnett County power brokers don’t try to push their agenda.” She said although there have been candidates of color in the past, the lack of minorities with political clout have kept them from being successful.

“Our analysis shows that for the last 10 years it’s been a challenge for minorities — Latinos, African-Americans and Asians — to build political power,” said Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, one of the groups who filed the suit. “It’s time for cross section of cultures to be better represented.”

The U.S. Census Bureau in December 2016 for the first time gave Gwinnett County a designation that mandates it offer Spanish-language voting information — everything from registration forms and online info to ballots.

Gwinnett’s school system, with about 180,000 students, is Georgia’s largest. School data show its racial breakdown is 31.9 percent black, 30.4 percent Hispanic, 23 percent white, 10.6 percent Asian and 3.9 percent other.

That’s far from what it used to be, not that long ago.

In 1970, Gwinnett County had just over 72,000 residents, almost all of them white. By 2040, it is projected to be Georgia’s most populous county, with more than 1.35 million people — less than 30 percent of whom will be white.

The shift in Gwinnett shift reflects the change throughout the South. A May 2017 report for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA said, “Today, white students comprise just over two in five students in the South, a stark decline from 1970, when whites accounted for about two in three students.”

But do school board members’ race really matter in how well minority students are served?

Having school system leaders the same race and ethnicity of the students they serve doesn’t guarantee student success, said Gerard Robinson, executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, a Washington, D.C.-based research and education initiative on education, criminal justice and economic mobility.

He applauds the strides Gwinnett County has made with the current board make-up, but said, “Having someone who represents you, look like you is important. It speaks to a larger issue of diluting your vote and pushing for your civil rights.”

Louise Radloff, who represents the only Gwinnett school board district in which minorities are a majority of the population, told the AJC in August 2016, “I spend 99 percent of my time meeting the needs of minorities.”

There are some indications Gwinnett schools have done well serving minority students.

For example, Gwinnett has been a two-time winner of the $1 million Broad Prize, an annual award to large urban school districts that demonstrate strong performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among low-income students and students of color. Winning that award has brought Gwinnett $1.75 million in college scholarships.

At the recent forum, the candidates argued that it takes more than race, gender, ethnicity or political affiliation to best represent the needs of students, parents, teachers and community stakeholders.

Randall Lee, a Republican running for the District 4 seat, said applying policies equitably would make race a non-issue. While he acknowledged some students may have disadvantages, he said it’s not the school system’s job to solve societal ills.

“The school isn’t supposed to fix all problems, but if we make sure that there is diversity on the school level, the children will interact with teachers, administrators and other personnel they can relate to.”

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