Low turnout feared for crucial DeKalb school board election

Down near the bottom of the ballot, just above a manufactured goods tax exemption in the tiny city of Clarkston, is an election with serious consequences for the parents of 100,000 students — not to mention anyone who pays taxes in DeKalb County.

All seven seats on the board that governs Georgia’s third largest school district are up for grabs.

Despite the importance for a county school system that nearly lost accreditation and has yet to fully regain it, two candidate forums hosted by Leadership DeKalb last month drew smaller than expected crowds. The civic advocacy group raised $25,000 to publicly vet the 22 candidates, yet only about 60 people turned up to watch each event.

Yvette Pitts-Ayo, a parent and school volunteer, felt anxious as she exited the second one at a south DeKalb community center. The lack of interest does not bode well for the May 20 election, she said.

“I’m ill at ease, because I don’t think enough people are going to come out,” said Pitts-Ayo, whose son is in seventh grade. “It’s not time to relax and think things are okay. We are still in a crisis.”

Low turnout would give outsize influence to special interests in the non-partisan races. Since there is no school board primary in DeKalb, this will be the final vote except for any runoffs.

This is an election for the history books for several reasons.

First, in reaction to perceived dysfunction, the Georgia General Assembly cut two seats from the nine-member board and adjusted the terms of the remaining seven so that all are up for election this year. Second, in reaction to the same perceived dysfunction, Gov. Nathan Deal replaced six elected board members last year, but only four of his appointees are running and they all face opposition.

The intersection of these two events produced this odd outcome: One of the governor’s appointees, Karen Carter, was shifted into the district of Jim McMahan, one of the three elected members Deal left on the board, so that race features two incumbents. Also, Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, one of the members tossed out by Deal, wants back on the board; Don McChesney, who lost his seat to Marshall Orson in the election two years ago, is running against Orson again; and Stan Jester, whose wife was removed from the board by Deal, is running unopposed.

The winners will make decisions that will determine whether the district regains full accreditation. Selection of the next superintendent will be chief among them.

That’s why parents such as Allyson Gevertz are talking so much about this election. The co-president of the Emory Lavista Parent Council tried to get people to attend the candidate forums.

“This election,” she said, “is arguably the most important that’s ever occurred in DeKalb County.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the agency that placed DeKalb on accreditation probation in 2012, has praised the current board and superintendent Michael Thurmond for stabilizing the district. Earlier this year, SACS bumped DeKalb’s accreditation up a notch to “accredited warned” status. But that’s still a couple steps from full accreditation, and Mark Elgart, president and CEO of SACS parent company AdvancED, has warned that this election is “critical” to the district’s future.

“This community needs to pay close attention to whom they elect, “Elgart said in January, when he announced the end of probation. “Politics is one of the reasons the system got itself to this point.”

Thurmond’s contract expires in June 2015, and he has said he does not intend to remain as superintendent after that.

Fear of a return to dysfunction was obvious at the candidate forums, where the word “sorry” was used more than once to describe the old school leadership.

“The previous BOE [board of education] was dysfunctional. What can you do to keep the board from going back to that if some of the previous board members are re-elected,” one member of the audience at a mid-April event at Emory University asked through a moderator. Another question: “Given the sorry history the board has in choosing superintendents (this elicited knowing laughter from the scant audience), why should we believe the board will choose a capable leader this next time?”

During a companion event at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, the moderator asked this next question of every candidate present because it “was deemed to be a priority question and a very important” one: “Given the sorry state of the previous school board, how can we trust the new school board will work together, put student issues ahead of adult issues, and pick the right superintendent?”

Those forums are history now, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is presenting brief biographies of all 22 candidates today and in coming days, along with their responses to questions about key issues. Their answers were pared down for the newspaper, but fuller responses from all the candidates are available now on myajc.com.

By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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