School & District Management

In Atlanta and Denver, the Focus Is on School Board Races

By Jessica L. Sandham — October 29, 1997 6 min read

Four years ago, Atlanta voters ousted the majority of a combative, often ineffective school board that many viewed as an embarrassment to the city.

When the city’s voters return to the polls next week, they will decide whether some of the replacements have done enough to improve the struggling, 60,000-student district. Among the prominent issues are stagnant test scores and a continuing flow of middle-class students and families to the suburbs.

The race in Atlanta is just one of several heated local school board elections taking place around the country on Nov. 4.

District at a Glance: Atlanta Public Schools

Superintendent: Benjamin Canada

Enrollment: 60,000 students

Number of schools: 96

Racial composition: 90 percent black, 7 percent white, and 2 percent Hispanic

School board: Nine-member, nonpartisan board includes six district representatives and three at-large members. Board members serve four-year terms. There are 20 candidates on the Nov. 4 ballot, including six incumbents.

“This board was elected to replace a board that was seen as very unprofessional and difficult,” said Sallie Weddell, a community education director at APPLE Corps, an education watchdog organization in Atlanta. “The biggest obstacle now is that people had extremely high expectations and wanted to see change faster, and they’re frustrated.”

All nine school board seats are up for grabs. Six of the school board members who took office in 1993 are running again--four of them in contested races. The other three seats are vacant because veteran board members have stepped down.

When making a case for re-election, the Atlanta incumbents can point to such accomplishments as the expansion of the district’s foreign-language department, the reconstitution of two troubled schools, and the adoption of a five-year strategic plan intended to raise standards and achievement.

But some critics say the changes amount to too little, too late.

“We haven’t seen overnight success,” acknowledged Sadie Dennard, an incumbent board member who is running against a retired teacher, Anne Crawford.

''It does take the first two years to understand the bureaucracy of an education system,” Ms. Dennard added. “Then by the second or third year you’re in a problem-solving role.”

Sadie Dennard

Since that pivotal 1993 election, the board has also made some controversial decisions, including various school consolidations and a readjustment of the district’s pay schedule that limited the traditional raises given to custodial-staff members and service workers. Many employees felt they were “deceived and mistreated” by the school board as a result, Ms. Weddell said.

But through it all, the board focused on the needs of the district’s children first, argued Norman Johnson, an incumbent member who is running for one of three districtwide seats against two opponents.

‘Adult Issues’

“You don’t allow adult issues to crowd out kid issues,” Mr. Johnson said. “And when you forward the kid agenda at the expense of the adult agenda, you run the risk of the adults remembering you on Election Day.”

Some detractors have criticized the incumbents for demonstrating the same professionalism Atlanta voters welcomed four years ago. Their businesslike behavior at meetings has made them seem “aloof and out of touch” to some residents, Ms. Weddell said.

Even though a majority of the school board and the superintendent are black, she said, “there’s still a lot of distrust from the low-income African-American community.”

Monica Jones, a Georgia State University instructor who is challenging Mr. Johnson, contends that the current board has promoted a business agenda at the expense of students and teachers.

“We need to have a board that offers something to everyone, not just a select group,” Ms. Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The children and their interests should be the driving force behind the board, not business interests.”

But according to one supporter, Atlanta voters aren’t likely to gain a more stable, effective school board by voting the incumbents out of office.

When they entered office, the board members were “inexperienced, and it took them some time to understand the issues and subtleties,” said Vivian Ingersoll, the executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Public Education, a nonprofit organization that monitors the public schools. “But it’s critical that we don’t have to start from zero.”

Challenges in Denver

When Denver voters go to the polls, they’ll elect school board members through a new system that reflects the city’s shift to neighborhood schools after more than two decades of mandatory busing.

After Nov. 4, the seven-member board will include two at-large members and five who represent areas within the 65,000-student district. Previously, all seven representatives were elected at-large.

Four of the board’s seven seats are open this year, with two members seeking re-election.

The vote will help set the tone for the future of the school district as it enters a new era, said Pam Webber, who heads the district’s Parent Teacher Student Association.

And as voters make their choices next week, the issue “in the front of everybody’s mind is how to avoid resegregation,” Ms. Webber said.

Lee White

Much of the publicity during the campaign has centered around candidate Lee McClendon, a challenger to incumbent Lee White’s at-large seat. Mr. McClendon drew widespread attention after his former stepson alerted board members that Mr. McClendon is a convicted child molester.

Thirteen years ago, Mr. McClendon, a technical writer and editor, was convicted of attempted sexual assault on a child after he pleaded guilty to molesting his stepson, then 8.

Though Mr. McClendon’s candidacy has dominated the media coverage, the issue “has been completely nonexistent in our debates and forums,” said Mr. White, who last month asked Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to seek a ban that would keep convicted sex offenders from serving on school boards.

Still, Mr. White says he is not concerned about his competition. “The guy is a wacko and everybody knows that,” he said.

But Mr. McClendon, who says he is running to try to offset the “incompetency” of the current board, believes Denver voters have begun to view him as a serious contender.

“I believe I have dealt with [the molestation issue] appropriately and demonstrated that I have rehabilitated myself,” Mr. McClendon said, citing the terms of his probation, which included 45 weekends in jail as well as therapy.

Record Bond Vote

Elsewhere in Colorado, school bond issues totalling $694 million are on the ballots in 21 districts that are hoping to upgrade or expand their school facilities. The sum of the bond issues is the highest the state has ever had, and it stems from the “extraordinary growth” in enrollment over the past decade, said Phil Fox, the associate director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

“The student body in the state has grown 20 percent in the past decade,” Mr. Fox said. “And since Colorado is one of roughly a dozen states which makes no state contribution for construction, that has put a major stress on capacity in a lot of districts.”

Among other local education-related votes elsewhere in the country:

  • In the 29,000-student Orange Unified School District near Los Angeles, four of the seven school board seats are open in the traditionally conservative district.

The race has centered around efforts by a centrist coalition to install a “moderate” majority on the conservative-dominated board.

  • In Houston, five of the district’s nine school board seats are up for grabs, with three incumbents seeking re-election. Campaign issues center around whether board candidates would be willing to call for a bond election to deal with crowding in the 214,000-student district.
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