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.