Equity in Education (EiE), in partnership with ALi at Lakewood, hosted the first School Board Candidate Debate of this election season Wednesday evening.
Four Atlanta school board members faced off against challengers and gave voters the opportunity to learn more about the candidates and ask questions that matter to them most.
TV and Radio Personality Rashad Richey served as moderator of the debate, followed by a Q&A from community members. Nearly all candidates were at the debate, including at-large candidates Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, Tamara Jones, Nkoyo Lewis and Jessica Johnson (District 1 incumbent Katie Howard is running unopposed and William “Will” Sardinia, an at-large District 7 candidate, did not attend the debate.)
During the event, the debate focused on establishing equity across the board, student achievement, and the board’s recent decision not to extend former Superintendent Lisa Herring’s contract.
The three main talking points for the debate were board transparency, literacy, and the budget.
During the debate, a few candidates questioned the courage of incumbents on board votes and at-large District 9 incumbent Jessica Johnson said the board has done a good job of keeping the community informed.
Johnson’s opponent, Nkoyo Effiong Lewis said she would love to see the board operate “with the courage of their convictions and to share what their decisions are on matters where they are or are not necessarily unanimous.”
Also, at-large District 7 candidate Alfred “Shivy” Brooks said the current board has a “courage deficit”.
“When our board members decide to vote unanimously, essentially, they are hiding their intentions. We need people courageous enough to tell you exactly how they feel about something,” he said.
His challenger, at-large District 7 incumbent Tamara Jones said the board could do a better job communicating its process.
“I want to make that much more clear to the public and how the board actually operates and people don’t think we’re just going off and making decisions in a vacuum,” she said.
Furthermore, 56.5% of Atlanta’s third graders are reading at or above grade level, according to a study by the Georgia Department of Education.
Ken Zeff, executive director of the education nonprofit Learn4Life said Atlanta Public Schools (APS) should develop a comprehensive literacy plan.
“We should train the teachers, train the instructional coaches, train the assistant principals, train the bus drivers, so that everyone understands that we’re passing a comprehensive science-based instructional strategy for literacy,” he said.
Learn4Life works with metro Atlanta school districts to improve outcomes and he also has been an interim superintendent of Fulton County Schools.
His opponent, District 3 incumbent Michelle Olympiadis said the district should consider implementing Orion-Gillingham, a program often used to teach students with dyslexia at all schools.
Olympiadis said when she was working at Morningside Elementary School at the PTA, they implemented this program which showed improvement “not just for kids who needed the program, but even for the kids who are doing great.”
Additionally, the District 5 candidates argued who was more qualified to provide additional insight on the district’s $1.6 billion budget.
During the community Q&A, community members brought up questions regarding Atlanta Public School properties, board meeting awareness, produce when it comes to student lunches, resources, and more.
High School student Morgan Barnette told candidates she noticed people don’t know about the meetings and debates.
“I don’t think anybody other than the people in this room knew about this meeting for real. I feel like people should know about these meetings,” she said. I didn’t even know what this was and we don’t even know who is on the board, they don’t come to our schools or talk to us other than parents, and although that’s great, we are the ones sitting in these classrooms.”
Fellow parent, Aisha Crawford also told candidates about failed training and how will they equip schools in Atlanta with the necessary resources to aid students in reading.
“It’s not simply about the teachers failing students, its about what is the board doing to equip these schools and teachers with the necessary tools to help these kids who do not know how to read after third or fourth grade,” she said.
The Atlanta school board race is the only election on the ballot this fall. Early voting is scheduled from Oct. 16 through Nov. 3. Election day is Nov. 7. Runoff elections for any seats, if necessary, will happen in December.
The 2023 Atlanta School Board candidates:
Maynard Jackson Cluster, District 1
- Katie Howard, who is running unopposed, was first elected in 2021.
District 3: Midtown Cluster
- Michelle Olympiadis (I) has served on the school board since 2017. She is also a board member for the Georgia School Boards Association.
- Her challenger, Ken Zeff, is the executive director of local education nonprofit Learn4Life. He served as Fulton County’s interim school superintendent for the 2015-16 school year.
District 5: Mays Cluster
- Incumbent: Erika Mitchell was first elected in 2017. She’s the vice president of business development for ChanceLight Education, which contracts with public school districts and other educational institutions to provide special education programs.
- Mitchell’s opponent, Raynard Johnson, is a digital media and IT consultant. He lost bids for an APS board seat in 2017 and 2021.
District 7: At Large
- Tamara Jones (I) has worked in architecture and urban planning for over 25 years, according to her campaign bio. She was elected to the board in 2021.
- Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, teaches economics, personal finance and government at Charles Drew High School for Clayton County Public Schools. Brooks unsuccessfully ran for Post 1 at Large on the Atlanta City Council in 2021. William “Will” Sardin is also challenging Jones.
District 9: At Large
- Jessica Johnson was appointed to the school board in January 2023 to fill former board member Jason Esteves’ seat. Esteves resigned because he was elected to the Georgia Senate.
- Nkoyo Effiong Lewis is an education advocacy attorney and directs the Law Practice Management program at the State Bar of Georgia.