Leadership of Atlanta schools at stake in citywide race

The five-way citywide race for school board pits insiders vs. outsiders in an election that could change the leadership of education in Atlanta schools.

Board Chairman Reuben McDaniel and former school board member Mark Riley are being challenged by attorneys Tom Tidwell and Cynthia Briscoe Brown, as well as frequent candidate Dave Walker. All of them are seeking the District 8 seat, in one of three at-large races at stake in the Nov. 5 election.

McDaniel and Riley say they have the direct experience needed to move beyond Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating and accreditation scandals of the past few years. But their opponents say McDaniel and Riley have had their chance and it’s time for new representatives on the board of the 50,000-student school district.

While the winner of the race will represent the city as a whole, four of the candidates live in the same North Atlanta area, where they’re waging a street-by-street battle for votes.

McDaniel, an investment banker, and Riley, a real estate developer, have met in an election before. McDaniel lost to Riley in 2005, but then won his seat in the next election four years ago when Riley unsuccessfully ran against Nancy Meister in a different district representing only North Atlanta.

“The last thing we need is for the city to start over again,” said McDaniel, whose daughter is a freshman at North Atlanta High. “We’ve come through a very difficult period in Atlanta Public Schools, but we are really making progress — just not fast enough.”

Over the next four years, McDaniel said he wants to improve the quality of instruction and offer a variety of services to meet the unique needs of students across the city.

Riley, who served on the board from 2002 to 2009, accused McDaniel of “dirty politics” in his handling of racism accusations at North Atlanta High. McDaniel voiced concern about the accusations last year before Superintendent Erroll Davis removed the school’s leadership team, but an investigative report by the school system concluded last month that educators didn’t discriminate by race.

“He’s not the unifying influence we need on the board,” said Riley, whose two sons graduated from North Atlanta High. “We need a new board that’s committed to doing the hard work to change an incredibly calcified bureaucracy, to change the culture and find new ideas and approaches in classrooms.”

If elected, Riley said he would work to raise the school system’s 51 percent graduation rate and be more responsive to parents.

Tidwell, who has children enrolled at Morris Brandon Elementary and Sutton Middle School, said neither McDaniel nor Riley have done anything to change the school system’s centralized bureaucracy.

“Atlanta Public Schools is insanely top heavy. We’ve got to get more of that money into the classroom, and that means we need to find out where we need to make cuts,” said Tidwell, who is emphasizing the importance of early childhood education.

Brown, whose son is a senior at North Atlanta High and whose daughter graduated a few years ago, said her experience as a longtime advocate for students and parents would make a difference.

“For the last dozen years or more, board members have been too focused on their personal political agendas to work together for the benefit of our children,” said Brown, who said her priority if elected would be to hire a quality superintendent. “I want to unify the board around the common goal of making sure every child gets everything they need to succeed.”

Walker, a disabled Vietnam veteran who has run for city council or mayor four times, said he wants to put prayer back in public schools.

“The school board has been a circus. I’d like to see every member of the current school board thrown out,” Walker said.