Graduation rates, superintendent search dominate Atlanta schools’ District 5 race

One called it a “near crisis.” Another said it was “anemic.”

Atlanta Public Schools’ 51 percent graduation rate in 2011 sticks in the craw of the four candidates running to replace out-going District 5 board member LaChandra Butler Burks.

Not surprisingly, all want to see an improvement in that graduation rate — which was 16 percentage points below the state rate, which itself was among the worst in the nation.

All have plans they argue would strengthen the school district, which has been plagued by a standardized test cheating scandal and by subsequent leadership turnover at the district and school level.

All nine Atlanta school board seats are up for grabs this fall. Burks has served on the board since 2005 but is not running for re-election.

In addition to Atlanta Public Schools’ low graduation rate, candidates for the seat in District 5 — which covers western sections of Atlanta and includes such schools as Bolton Academy, Coretta Scott King Academy and Benjamin E. Mays High — know that, if elected, they’ll have a say in selecting the school system’s next superintendent.

Raynard Johnson, a 54-year-old software development consultant, said he wants the superintendent who succeeds Erroll Davis to have “a proven track record of improving academic achievement in an urban school district.”

That candidate doesn’t have to come from outside of the city of Atlanta, Johnson said, adding that he wants a leader who would join the board in finding ways to spend less on central office functions. The money saved could be spent hiring teachers, which would reduce class sizes and, eventually, lead to improvements in APS’ graduation rate, Johnson said.

Fellow candidate Charles Lawrence, a 53-year-old real estate broker, said improving the graduation rate “will start with hiring a superintendent who has a specific plan for dealing with this near crisis situation.”

Lawrence, who has an eighth-grader in APS, said the school system’s leaders should focus on ensuring students have a better foundation at the pre-kindergarten and early elementary level.

Steven Lee, a 49-year-old director of a counseling center, said he wants the next superintendent to reach out to parents, local businesses and the religious community with a plan to improve the district’s “anemic” graduation rate.

Academic improvements can be made in APS, Lee said, but several challenges must be tackled, including teacher absenteeism.

“Teacher absenteeism disproportionately affects low-income students,” Lee said. “Research shows that absenteeism in schools serving low-income students is higher than for students in more affluent communities.”

Mary L. Palmer, a 55-year-old academic coach, said a big part of APS’ problem is its image.

“The system has to get over the hurdle of the negatives of the cheating scandal, the instability in the leadership,” she said. ‘We have to move past the perception of that.”

All of the candidates said the Atlanta school system needs to do a better job of directing resources to classroom learning and providing more financial transparency.

Whoever wins the District 5 seat would be expected to help manage the school system’s finances. Using public documents, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution performed criminal and financial background checks on each of the candidates.

Public records reveal Palmer has had significant financial difficulties. She faces a $25,318 federal tax lien stemming from unpaid taxes in 2002 and 2003. The records show that she satisfied state tax liens totaling $12,646 from unpaid taxes in 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2004. There is no indication two other state tax liens — one for $6,244 from unpaid taxes in 2003 and 2005, and another for $536 for unpaid taxes in 2007 — have been satisfied.

Palmer said she struggled financially when she left an information technology job and began working in social services. She said the tax liens are “being worked on.”

As for whether voters should trust her to help manage APS’ finances, Palmer said she has worked in various community service capacities without any questions.

“No one has ever questioned my ethics,” she said. “I’ve never used my position for personal gain.”