Several themes—leadership, ethics, money—dominated as candidates for the DeKalb County School Board spoke out at an Oct. 7 forum. Political analyst and commentator Bill Crane served as moderator.
The forum was one of several opportunities the 15 men and women vying for five seats on the school board had to share their views with potential voters in the Nov. 2 general election. Seats in Districts 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 are on this year’s ballot.
Candidates expressed strong views on leadership within the school system and especially on the selection of a person to fill the vacant superintendent’s seat. Eugene Walker, who is seeking reelection in District 9, said the county’s education system is “in crisis” and the board must find “a dynamic superintendent who had insight on how to spend money.”
Walker said that DeKalb County should not measure itself against other Georgia school systems, but against the best schools in the world. “We should seek to be the gold standard,” he said.
Because the most recent superintendent resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal, it’s not surprising that many, like District 7 candidate Donna Edler underscored the need to find a superintendent of impeccable moral character. The new superintendent should “be ready from day one to rebuild the credibility of the DeKalb County School System,” she said.
The board’s overall focus should be raising the level of achievement in the schools, said District 7 candidate Richard Gathany, a lawyer and longtime PTA member. “We need a superintendent with a proven record of academic improvement.”
District 1 candidate Bobbe Gillis, a Doraville business owner, also said she wants to see the board hire a superintendent with a proven record. “It must be a person who has been an outstanding example of ethics and who has taken a failing school system and turned it around.”
Willie Mosley Jr., also a candidate for District 7, said the system needs “an outstanding person of the highest standards,” then the board must hold him or her accountable. “There’s no leadership, it’s just not there. Money is not being spent properly.”
Zapora Roberts, the incumbent in that district, agreed that integrity is a top requirement for a superintendent. However, she disagreed with many other candidates on another issue: the construction of the new administrative headquarters on Mountain Industrial Boulevard. She said that the decision was a good one since it brought all the administrators under one roof.
Gathany disagreed saying that spending money for a new administrative headquarters was “not appropriate” when so many schools were in need of repair and renovation.
In a school system troubled by criminal charges against the superintendent and other high ranking officials as well as accusations of unethical behavior by administrators and board members, challengers touted the need for new blood on the board while veterans like Roberts insisted that experience is needed to set matters right.
Jaques Hall Jr., who graduated from Lakeside High School five years ago, is taking on District 5 incumbent Jay Cunningham. He acknowledged that he has had no experience in office, but said that his approach, staying in close touch with people in the community, would make a difference. “We are at a crossroads. We need to come together.”
Cunningham, however, said that the ability to bring together board members with divergent points of view has been one of his strengths. He said the board is moving in the right direction although there is still a lot more work to be done. He said that he feels the system has nothing to fear from an investigation by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the state’s accrediting agency.
Ella Smith, a former teacher in Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties and a District 9 candidate, said that her career experience especially qualified her to oversee the school system. “I have been an educator for 33 years,” she said. “Education has been my whole life. Things have changed and the DeKalb County School System hasn’t changed. We need to look at current trends.”
Elder said her background as a certified public accountant, real estate appraiser and contract investigator would bring to the board skills that are particularly needed right now. Faced with multimillion-dollar spending decisions, she said, the board needs her type of expertise.
District 1 candidate Nancy Jester, a former actuarial consultant, also cited her financial background as an asset needed to address the system’s problems. “To reform the school system, we have to reform the budget,” she said.
Corey Wilson, a business manager, was the only District 3 candidate at the forum since incumbent Sarah Copelin-Wood was not present. He said the school system needs courageous leadership—“people who are willing to do what is unpopular if it’s the right thing.” He said that current ethics guidelines probably don’t go far enough. “We need to be very transparent in all our dealings,” he said.