This story was produced in collaboration with Capital B Atlanta.
Early voting starts in less than a month for Atlanta School Board elections, with 10 candidates vying for your vote — and the opportunity to help shape the city’s public school system. These elections have extremely low turnout but come with high stakes — especially for the more than 35,000 Black students attending Atlanta Public Schools.
Eight of the 10 school board candidates joined a candidate forum on Sept. 20, hosted by Atlanta education nonprofit Equity in Education and moderated by Emmy-nominated journalist Dr. Rashad Richey in Lakewood Heights.
APS parents, students, and community members raised various issues they said are motivating them to get out and vote this fall. These issues ranged from inequity around school discipline, food deserts in students’ districts, what to do with vacant APS buildings and candidates’ understanding of students’ daily learning experiences.
The 10 candidates are running for five open school board seats (out of nine) in APS districts 1, 3, and 5, plus at-large citywide districts 7 and 9. Only one candidate, District 1 board member Katie Howard, is running unopposed. Early voting starts Oct. 16 and Election Day is Nov. 7.
The event started with two moderated candidate forums, one for district seat candidates and another for at-large candidates. That was followed by a question-and-answer period for the community. Audience members could ask one question each to either a specific candidate or the entire group.
Overdiscipline of Black APS students
Sterling Johnson, director of the Partnership for Southern Equity’s Just Opportunity program, which focuses on economic inclusion for marginalized communities, asked candidates to address racial disparities in school discipline.
A new report from the Georgia Governor’s Office for Student Achievement shows that Black students overwhelmingly are more likely to face discipline. For APS, Black students made up 89.6% of students disciplined in 2022, even though they made up only 72.8% of the student body. By contrast, white students comprised only 3.8% of students disciplined but constituted 15.2% of all students.
District 3 incumbent Michelle Olympiadias acknowledged that the far higher rate of discipline for Black students is a serious issue for APS, but said policy is not her area of expertise. “We have changed our policy recently with respect to discipline,” Olympiadias said. “I’m not a policy girl; I’m a budget girl. I just want to be really clear on that.”
Her opponent, Ken Zeff, a former superintendent for Fulton County Schools, said the solution starts with re-engaging students at the classroom level and providing staff on all levels with the resources to do that.
“We have to get to this issue before it ends up in that case–and I think it is about supporting learning in the classroom,” Zeff said. “Why do [students] not see themselves in the curriculum? When a kid has a better experience, teachers have freedom to engage.”
“For those that are unaware, food apartheid is defined as a system of segregation that divides those with access to an abundance of nutritious food and those who have been denied that access due to the racist, oppressive systems that create inequitable food environments,” one community member said. She asked candidates their stance on supporting farm-to-classroom programs.
District 5 candidate Raynard Johnson’s solution: Growing fresh fruits and vegetables right on APS-owned properties. “Does the FDA say we cannot?” he asked. “We need to get around some of our legislative, governmental restraints so that we utilize some of our own greenspaces, grow our vegetables for our own families and our own kids.”
District 5 incumbent Erika Mitchell, a school board member since 2018, said she has been a leader in developing programs that ensure APS students have access to food even after leaving school.
“I have the food pantry program that I put together, and also the food backpack program that allows our students to have food–supplemental food–to take home through the weekend,” Mitchell said. “The food pantry program allows [students] to have a pantry in the schools where they have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Vacant APS properties
Blight is something at-large District 7 candidate Alfred ‘Shivy’ Brooks says he knows all too well. And the surplus of vacant school buildings owned by APS contributes to neighborhood blight, said Brooks, an economics teacher at Charles Drew High School in Clayton County.
“I think we have a real issue, a real disconnection–and I think we have some of us who want to play landlord as APS members,” Brooks said. “I think it’s time for us honestly to have a real conversation about what to do with our surplus properties so that we’re better serving not only our kids in our schools but also our community.”
If elected, Brooks would become the first public school teacher on the school board.
His opponent, incumbent board member Tamara Jones, said her expertise as an urban planner has prompted her to push the current APS administration to set up a clear, transparent process to decide how to use vacant APS properties that includes community members at the decision table.
“Yesterday, we had a convening of the facilities master plan where they were talking about our surplus properties,” Jones said. She added that one key point was to make sure that “the communities would be contacted first, give their feedback, and then–together between APS and the community and any subject matter experts–you would pick what the use of the property would be ahead of time.”
Communication gap between students, school board
Morgan Hardin, a student at Kipp Atlanta Collegiate, told the school board candidates that one of her biggest concerns is the board members’ lack of awareness of students’ actual issues.
“I don’t think anybody knew about this meeting, for real,” Hardin said, referring to her fellow APS students. “We don’t know any of the people who are on the board. Those people aren’t coming out to our schools or anything to talk to us. Most of the people that y’all are talking to be parents, and parents won’t have the full perspective that we have. We’re the ones sitting in the seats of classes.”
District 9 at-large incumbent Jessica Johnson said she’s present on APS campuses through her philanthropic work and school board programs like Breakfast With the Board.
“Before joining the board as the founder of the Scholarship Academy, I actually had an opportunity to serve in almost every single APS high school, designing what we call ‘financial aid emerge experience’ for students, [and] training college advisors how to directly connect students to local and state-based money,” said Johnson. She was appointed in January to fill the seat vacated by state Sen. Jason Esteves.
Johnson’s opponent, Nikoya Effong Lewis, said she hopes to bridge the gap between students and the school board.
“It should be that the goal is to make sure that each one of our children are leaving in a better position than we were,” Lewis said. “And so, for those of us who are in the pursuit of making sure that you get to lift your full potential, it is my goal to listen to you and to show up in the spaces and ways that make being a part of this process easier and more accessible.”
Are you an Atlanta Public Schools parent or student? Have some concerns you want potential elected officials to address? We want to hear from you. Email ACC’s democracy reporter, Ryan Zickgraf, at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions and thoughts you have in the weeks leading up to Nov. 7.