Ken Zeff, the executive director of Learn4Life, is challenging incumbent Michelle Olympiadis. Zeff has a background in education administration, including work for charter school networks in Los Angeles and Tennessee and a stint as Fulton County’s interim school superintendent. He also once served as a policy consultant for the U.S. Department of Education and was involved in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Background & Experience
- MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
- Doctorate from Georgia State University
- Total cash on hand: $47,846.04
- Largest contributors:
- Comer Yates, head of the Atlanta Speech School
- Zeff’s family were amongst his largest contributors in the June 30 disclosure
- Notes: Zeff’s donors include Marshall Tuck, founding CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and two-time candidate for California State Superintendent.
- Advocates for hiring the right superintendent, drawing from his own experience.
- Calls for a reduction in central office bureaucracy to direct more funds to schools.
- Aims to address the literacy crisis in Atlanta Public Schools.
Where did you grow up and how has your personal background influenced your perspective on public education?
I grew up in the Chicago metro area as the youngest of three. My mom was a career school teacher at Chicago Public Schools and my dad was an editor at World Book Encyclopedia. Education and books were all over our house. I went to undergrad at the University of Michigan and began my career in management consulting but I have been working in public education for the past 20 years. My perspective has been informed by my view of education from multiple vantage points. I served as chief strategy officer and then superintendent of Fulton County Schools. Now I am the executive director of Learn4Life, a nonprofit partnership of the metro Atlanta school systems dedicated to finding and scaling what works to serve kids.
We want to know about your involvement in the community. Please list any volunteer or mentorship activities, professional boards you sit on, and community organizations that you’re affiliated with.
- Junior Achievement of Georgia, Board Member
- Get Georgia Reading, Cabinet Member
- Atlanta-Fulton County Library Foundation Board, Treasurer
- Passport Atlanta, Board member
- Governor’s Education Reform Commission, Appointee
- Leadership Atlanta
- Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow
- Regional Economic Competitiveness Commission, Steering Committee
Why should voters support your candidacy for the APS School Board?
I believe in Atlanta Public Schools and I know we can do better for students. I am a parent of three Atlanta Public Schools students. I have served as chief strategy officer and then superintendent of Fulton County Schools, a district twice the size of APS.
Now I am the executive director of Learn4Life, a nonprofit partnership of the metro Atlanta school systems dedicated to finding and scaling what works to serve kids. I spend every day working with districts across the region to boost student achievement.This combination of experience and commitment will guide my decision-making as your District 3 representative.
The Atlanta School Board did not renew the contract for former school superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring and hired Dr. Danielle Battle as the interim superintendent on Aug. 7, 2023, while they conduct a national search.
Why do you think there’s so much superintendent turnover at APS — and what do you think can be done to address it?
This fall, the Board will be looking to hire its fourth superintendent in five years. It’s a revolving door that creates instability in our schools. And it’s costly for taxpayers and it distracts from a laser focus on student achievement. The Board needs to be aligned on a common strategy around literacy and pushing out resources. As a former superintendent and a partner to district’s across the region, I have developed a deep understanding of what it takes to be successful as an organization leader.
What qualifications and qualities do you believe are essential for the next superintendent?
I think when search firms generate a five-page list of qualities in the next superintendent, we lose the opportunity to focus this leader on a few key priorities. There are two qualities I will be looking for in the next district leader: 1) literacy leadership and 2) commitment to decentralize resources. For literacy leadership, I will look to see if [the candidate] demonstrated transformational literacy gains in a similar setting as APS. To push out resources from the central office, a superior candidate will have shown the ability to lead a diverse system by supporting each school’s success, instead of managing each school community through compliance.
APS is in the third year of a five-year strategic plan that ends in 2025. What are your thoughts on how that plan is going, and what would you do differently? What should the next five year plan address?
The success of a strategic plan is not just about the words on the page, it is all about execution. The next plan should be laser-focused on a few key goals so the entire community knows what we believe in and where we will put our resources. My priorities are to organize the district around the belief that every child is a reader and ensure we move resources and decision-making to the classroom. Taken together, these combined strategies will transform the district for all students.
How should the District best address the understaffing and retention of teachers and staff?
Teachers chose to be educators to change students’ lives. They leave the District when they don’t feel supported or valued. When we move resources and decision-making to the classroom and out of the central office, Atlanta Public Schools will be known as a system where teachers are treated as professionals and we will become a destination of choice for current and future educators.
More than 5,000 APS students have a disability or special needs. What can the school district do to better serve those students, especially when it comes to allocating resources to schools?
We can improve equity by shifting resources from central office budgets and send those funds to our schools. Central office departments grew about 18% last year (about $40 million). Property taxes increased by 9%. Right now, schools in more affluent communities supplement their local schools budget with foundations from wealthy parents. Your zip code should not predict the level of resources you have in your school. With focused leadership, we can ensure that all our students have the resources they need to be successful.
Only about one-third of APS students are at or above the proficient level for reading and math with reports saying that COVID learning loss is still a factor. How can the District ensure children meet or exceed the reading and writing standards?
Our special needs kids deserve to have a system that is responsive to their unique strengths and challenges. That begins with ensuring we have special education department that is well-trained and fully staffed. As we build a system where all APS teachers are valued as professionals, those professionals will be better positioned to support all our students, especially those with individualized education programs.
Identify three ways the Atlanta School Board can better involve youth, parents and caretakers in the Board’s decision-making process? math with reports saying that COVID learning loss is still a factor. How can the District ensure children meet or exceed the reading and writing standards?
Student success will soar when the Board works closely with teachers, parents, and the community as true partners in the work of Atlanta Public Schools. Here are three immediate next steps:
- Delegate true authority to the GO Teams – this is the heart of how external stakeholders engage with APS. If they are given control over more resources and how their school is run, they become active partners in the success of that school community.
- Provide a voice for the community to weigh in on the next superintendent hire through forums, surveys, focus groups, etc. The public should feel ownership of the superintendent selection since we all have a vested interest in their success.
- Communicate consistently and clearly. In past redistricting efforts, parents’ voices were not always heard consistently. We must ensure we have a clear process that respects parent’s time and input and then stick to that process.
Is the APS property tax burden too high for most Atlanta residents? Do you think commercial property owners are paying their fair share of APS property taxes?
The taxpayer has been extraordinarily generous to APS. While the residential taxpayer faced a 9% property tax increase this year, too often corporate tax breaks from the district (known as TADs) subsidize development with school district funds. While these projects promise to provide long-term tax revenue for the district, it is not clear these benefits return to the district and our students. I support smart development, but Atlanta is a destination city and development can likely occur without taking funds from the school district and our students.
District 3 candidates
- Brooks wins APS runoff election
- What Atlanta School Board voters were saying on Election Day
- Tamara Jones takes an architect’s approach to the “unsexy” work of the school board
- ELECTION RESULTS: 2023 Atlanta School Board
- What Atlanta School Board voters are saying on Election Day
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