A year after Buford residents demanded transparency and diversity in the city school system, they will have a chance to show by their votes if changes made so far were satisfactory.
Three seats on the Buford City Schools Board of Education are up for re-election.
Shortly before school started last year, a recording of former Superintendent Gaye Hamby using racial slurs brought his ouster and a community call for changes at the head office. A new superintendent was hired this year.
Related story: Buford's new school chief tasked with repairing community
Related story: Buford unveils $85 million high school
Related story: Racist recording shocks tight-knit community
Many who showed up at meetings to take board members to task vowed to guarantee change by exercising their power at the polls.
Philip Beard, the current board chairman, is running but has no challengers. He refused to comment for this article, but has noted on many occasions that the board positions are voluntary. “We don’t get paid one nickel,” he said. “What we do is for the good of the students and the betterment of the community.”
James Taylor, president of Black Men United for Children and Humanity, a local education advocacy group, said, “I’m a little disappointed that nobody was willing to challenge Beard. Maybe it’s a sign that people are OK with what the board has done after the racial slur incident came to light last year. Or maybe he has so much influence nobody was willing to take him on.”
Incumbent Daren Perkins has one challenger, and board member Beth Lancaster has decided against another bid.
Lancaster said in a written statement, “Due to increased work commitments, I don’t feel I can give the school board what it will need after this term to continue to grow. It was a very difficult decision for me not to run again, but I feel sure that someone in our community will step up and continue to do what’s best for our school system.”
Three people believe they can fill her shoes.
Matthew Wayne Peevy, a Buford native who has lived in other parts of the country, works in wetlands restoration. He comes from a long line of public servants including teachers and a state senator. Peevy has sat on the Gwinnett zoning board as well as several government bodies. He introduced himself to the community at the school board meeting Monday night. “I look forward to supporting the community and the teachers,” he said. “My daughter is the fifth generation of my family to live in Buford. I grew up here and it’s home.”
Lien Diaz also spoke briefly Monday. A former teacher and coach, she’s currently on the staff at Georgia Tech. With 23 years in education, she’s been an adviser to the state Department of Education and worked for the College Board, best known for creating the SAT and AP tests. “I’ve lived in Buford for 13 years and I have four kids under 12 years old in the school system,” she said. “I thought it was time to give back to the community.”
Jerry Carter is also running for Lancaster’s seat. He is retired from logistics sales and is a former Marine. His son graduated from Buford High in 2000. Carter was chairman of a school improvement council while living in South Carolina. He said, “The school board has an obligation to listen to people on the front line, like teachers and support them however we can.”
Perkins said that as a former student of the system and board member for 13 years, he brings experience and knowledge of the job.
Melissa Ferris-Ozkan, who is running against Perkins, moved to Buford over four years ago with her husband and four children. Two of them are in the school system.
After Hamby was suspended, then resigned, a search committee headed by former Superintendent Beauty Baldwin, the first black school superintendent in the state, recommended the new superintendent, Robert Downs. The committee was racially diverse but half the members were current or former school district employees. The board also formed a diversity and inclusion committee and hired the high school’s first black head football coach.
Nicolas Harrison, a tuition-paying parent (he doesn’t live in city limits) said he’d still like to see better communication from the school district.
“This is a shake-hands-and-let’s-talk community,” he said. “That’s why I don’t understand why information is so hard to come by.”
He said he’d like the school system to announce when board seats are up for election.
“I know of several people who asked for information about qualifying and nobody got back to them,” he said. “This community is too small to be so bad at communication.”