Democrat Blair is running for Georgia school superintendent

Everton Blair. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Everton Blair. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Democrat Everton Blair, the school board chair of Georgia’s largest district, entered the race for state schools superintendent Tuesday with a promise to be a bridge-builder who will move beyond the “screaming and yelling” about education policy.

Blair, the first Black and openly gay member of Gwinnett County’s board of education, framed himself as a candidate who can foster consensus and tone down the rhetoric over mask requirements, virtual schooling and vaccine mandates that has shaped K-12 education amid the pandemic.

“Our state is at an inflection point and we need leaders who are going to prioritize the right work,” he said in an interview. “The other side is focused on picking fights and banning things. I’ll focus on the work that moves us forward rather than stoking new divisions.”

He joins a growing field challenging Republican incumbent Richard Woods. Democrat Dr. Jaha Howard, a dentist who serves on Cobb’s board of education, has also filed paperwork to run for office. So has former state superintendent John Barge, a Republican.

Blair announced in November he wouldn’t seek another term as Gwinnett’s board chair, and filed paperwork to run for higher office this month.

He was was elected in 2018 as the Gwinnett school board’s first Black, first openly gay and youngest-ever member. Since then, two other Democratic members of color have joined him on the five-person board, creating a split with the Democrats in the majority and two white Republicans in the minority.

In a split vote in March, he and the other Democrats made the polarizing decision to end longtime Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ contract nearly a year early. In July, the board unanimously hired Calvin Watts, a longtime administrator, as the first Black superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Blair’s tenure has been marked by struggles over the school district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, coming to a head during board meetings that were shut down by anti-mask protesters. His allies have trumpeted his approach for helping to avoid wider outbreaks.

“As the board chair for the largest school district in the state, we’ve been successful amid all the challenges that public education faces,” Blair said. “We’ve made the right decisions, and I would put that leadership up against anybody else who is running.”

Blair said he’d fight to “honor the hard work of teachers and make their jobs easier” by advocating for additional pay hikes for teachers, increased funding to school systems and more resources devoted to early literacy and after-school programs.

He’s running for superintendent at a time when education policy is at the center of political debate in Georgia – and GOP leaders are more willing to engage in culture war debates involving schools.

Aside from a promise to hike teacher pay and boost education funding, Gov. Brian Kemp also said he’ll stop the “divisive ideology” of critical race theory – even though there’s no evidence it’s being taught in public K-12 classrooms – and ban “obscene materials” from school libraries.

The governor also said he’ll back a parental bill of rights and opened the door to new restrictions on transgender women and girls from playing on female teams in high schools.

-Staff writer Alia Malik contributed to this report.

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