Atlanta school board chairman Jason Esteves answers questions from the audience at a community presentation at Hope-Hill Elementary School on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Atlanta. AJC file photo. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Shift would keep Atlanta school board from being voted out all at once

The Atlanta school district is pushing to stagger board member terms so that all nine seats no longer appear on the ballot in the same election year.

The change would prevent the threat of a massive board overhaul every four years and bring a promise of stability, supporters said.

The board is currently searching for a superintendent to lead the 52,000-student district, and the move also could provide reassurance to the incoming leader. New superintendents don’t want to take a job and then see the board that hired them completely replaced.

School board Chairman Jason Esteves this week introduced the proposed term changes, which would require state legislative approval, as one of several initiatives aimed at boosting board transparency and stability.

Most Georgia school boards have staggered terms, including the big metro Atlanta districts of Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

But in Atlanta, all nine seats are up for grabs during the same election cycle. The current board members’ terms all expire at the end of 2021.

Under Esteves’ proposal, all nine seats would appear on the 2021 ballot, but the five board members who represent odd-numbered districts would run for two-year terms. The four board members who represent even-numbered districts would run for four-year terms.

In 2023, the five odd-numbered seats would be up for election, with the winners getting four-year terms. After that, school board elections would take place every two years.

“The new superintendent will still have elections in 2021, but it gives them a sense of stability,” Esteves said.

He said the change also would help guarantee that experienced officials are on the board at all times. And, it could keep the board from grinding to a halt and pausing key votes during an election year.

“With other school districts that have staggered elections … they kept going because at the end of the day, half of the board is staying,” he said.

Several board members who represent odd-numbered districts said they support the idea, even though it could mean a shorter initial term for the candidates who win those seats in 2021.

Michelle Olympiadis, who represents District 3 in east Atlanta, said the change would bring stability. Leslie Grant, who represents District 1 in southeast Atlanta, said staggered elections are common practice elsewhere. She noted some “hiccups” with the plan. For example: School board seats up for election the same year as Atlanta’s mayor likely will have a higher voter turnout.

Justin Pauly, a spokesman for the Georgia School Boards Association, said the purpose of staggered terms is to ensure leadership continuity and “the retainment of historical knowledge for various aspects of board business such as operations, procedures, protocols and relationships.”

David Dreyer, a Democratic state representative from Atlanta, said he supports the change.

“This is just a good governance reform, and I can’t imagine there would be any substantial opposition to this,” he said.

Esteves announced other initiatives as he begins his third year as the school board’s chairman. The board, which previously did not record public comment on video, started doing so at its Jan. 6 meeting.

Another big change is an attempt to make superintendent evaluations more transparent. The board came under fire last year after deciding to not extend Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract, even though the board has provided positive public reports about her work each year.

Esteves said the board must make sure that whoever is hired as the new superintendent is comfortable with making the annual evaluations more open.

Carstarphen’s contract expires June 30, and the board aims to have a successor on the job by July 1.

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