English, Simama face off in citywide school board race

When the Atlanta school board was in turmoil and accreditation for the school system’s high schools was on the line, veteran educator Nisha Simama was called into temporary service.

Simama sat on the school board for a few months in 2011, and now she wants to serve a few years.

She’s challenging incumbent Courtney English, who in 2009 became the youngest person to win any citywide election by taking an at-large post on the school board. He was 24 at the time.

Simama, wife of former Atlanta City Councilman Jabari Simama, and English, a former teacher and consultant, both have well-known backers as they campaign citywide in the run-up to the Nov. 5 elections.

On their most recent campaign reports, English had raised $74,614, and Simama $54,912. Among Simama’s contributors was Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and among English’s was Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin. Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank gave each $2,500.

Simama said she has problems with the school board, in general, and English, specifically.

She describes the school board as “broken” and divided into “gangs and factions.”

“There is a lack of understanding of the role of the BOE,” the 64-year-old Simama said. “Many members meddle into the day-to-day operations, including personnel matters,” which are administrators’ responsibilities.

She said school board members need to be positive role models for students, and English has fallen short of that goal because he was sanctioned by his fellow board members for abusing a government credit card.

“I am not worried about what my opponent is or isn’t saying,” English said.

He said he owned up to the mistake with the credit card, reimbursed the district and moved on. He also acknowledges he was arrested for drunken driving in 2007.

As for the entire nine-member school board, English, 28, said: “It’s no secret the board has had its issues.”

“But in a way, we’ve overcome a lot of them,” he said. “We have turned the corner, I think, and are beginning to move in the right direction.”

Simama said she knows education inside and out and decided to run for the school board now because she believes every child deserves a first class education.

“I still teach each day ,which keeps me in touch with many of the educational issues we face in a changing society,” she said. “I have been an educator for over 30 years, and when I served as interim board member in 2011, it became very clear to me that my experience and perspective in education was much needed.”

English was sworn in shortly after the revelations about widespread test-cheating. He voted against accepting a blue-ribbon commission’s report on the scandal that was later deemed “woefully inadequate” by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

He is running as an advocate of parental choice, school autonomy and the availability of more rigorous classes, districtwide. He touts the fact that the board, during his tenure, has overhauled teacher evaluations and replaced more than 70 percent of principals. He also takes credit for a public-private partnership raising $2.5 million to launch Atlanta’s first drop-out prevention and recovery program.

In Simama’s short stint on the school board, she said she worked to get members to address the major issues that led to the school system being placed on probation by its accrediting agency.

“I emphasized the importance of putting aside old differences and wounds and working as a team on such policy issues as the importance of a super-majority vote on leadership changes,” she said, adding that English was the board member most against the idea.

She said she also helped the board refine its vision to include an emphasis on preparing students for community and technical education, along with four-year colleges and/or work readiness.

If elected, Simama said her priorities will be to hire a first-class superintendent, give him or her the power to transform the system and then work to establish a foundation that will fund innovation and solutions that can positively impact student achievement

Both candidates have deep roots in the city.

Simama has lived in Atlanta almost 40 years, in the Washington Park neighborhood since 1980. She’s worked for the private Paideia School for 20 years and also held a variety of jobs in K-12 schools and organizations.

English was born in Atlanta and attended Atlanta public Schools. He said his mother refused to send him to a low-performing neighborhood school. As a result, he said, he went to Douglass High School, which set up opportunities for his further education at Morehouse College and Columbia University.

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