Race is on

State School Superintendent John Barge owes his victory four years ago to the decision by his GOP predecessor Kathy Cox to give up almost certain re-election for a think tank job in Washington, throwing open the Republican field to virtual unknowns.

Now, Barge is returning the favor — if winning the job of leading an embattled state agency can be considered a coup. In an act that many deem political suicide, Barge is challenging Gov. Nathan Deal, who’s become an adversary rather than an ally and has done his best to marginalize the state Department of Education.

Everyone understood the friction between Gov. Roy Barnes and Superintendent Linda Schrenko. He was a Democrat. She was a Republican. (And there was that messy matter later of her conviction and prison sentence for embezzling federal funds meant for deaf children and using some of the money for a face-lift.)

What’s more surprising are the growing gulfs between Republican governors and superintendents. It began with Cox and Sonny Perdue — who, by the end of his tenure as governor, proposed making the state school superintendent an appointed position.

Under Barge and Deal, the fissure widened to a chasm as a mutual wariness hardened into overt hostility once the school chief condemned the 2012 charter school amendment as a diversion of much-needed monies for struggling public schools.

Money has been the root of tensions between Georgia GOP superintendents and governors. Once elected, the superintendents confront the devastating impact of state budget cuts on schools, from rural districts that can’t afford music teachers to suburban districts shoehorning 33 students into a science lab.

And they become more outspoken in their criticisms, which is never welcomed by the governors writing those budgets.

As was Barge in 2010, most of the 15 candidates for his job — nine Republicans and six Democrats — are unknowns. With the primary May 20, those candidates have eight weeks to introduce themselves to voters and leave a lasting impression.

One question being raised is why big-name metro superintendents — Alvin Wilbanks of Gwinnett and Will Schofield of Hall have been mentioned — didn’t run. It may be the state school chief job represents a step down in salary for them, or they may not relish the diminished stature of the DOE that’s resulted from the Barge-Deal friction.

One district superintendent has jumped into the GOP primary race: Quitman County’s Allen Fort. While Fort leads a small southwest Georgia system, he’s been a school improvement specialist with DOE and principal of schools across the state.

In fundraising, Fort and the other Republican hopefuls face a formidable opponent in Fitz Johnson, a retired U.S. Army veteran and former defense contractor who owned the Atlanta Beat professional women’s soccer team.

On the Democratic side, state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, D-Austell, enjoys the widest statewide profile and has made education her legislative focus. She lost some support from the Democratic establishment for her embrace of the 2012 charter school amendment, but voters overwhelmingly supported the constitutional amendment.

The Democrats have recruited a notable counterweight to Morgan in Valarie Wilson, former president of the Georgia School Boards Association and ex-Decatur city schools board member.

The other GOP candidates are Peachtree City college professor Mary Kay Bacallao; attorney and former Hall County commissioner Ashley Bell of Gainesville; Michael L. “Mike” Buck of Rome, former school administrator and acting chief of staff for Barge; former educator and PTA leader Sharyl Dawes of Johns Creek; former DeKalb County school board member Nancy Jester of Dunwoody; academic coach Kira Willis of Roswell, who ran in 2010 as a Libertarian, and Tifton educator Richard L. Woods, who ran in the 2010 GOP primary.

The other Democrats in the race are Atlanta instructional coach Tarnisha Dent; consultant Marion Spencer “Denise” Freeman of Wilkes County; educator Jurita Forehand Mays of DeKalb, and Lithonia teacher Rita Robinzine, who ran for the House in 2008.

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