Jesse Cunningham, one of the school board members removed from office by Gov. Nathan Deal to avert DeKalb’s accreditation scare, failed to make the runoff against the respected DeKalb business executive Thaddeus Mayfield in south DeKalb. Mayfield will instead face Vickie Turner, who helps run a private school south of Atlanta.
The hapless Willie Mosley likewise missed the playoffs against Deal-appointee Dr. Michael Erwin, a biology professor at Georgia Gwinnett and naval officer. Erwin’s second round goes against Atticus Leblanc, a Yale-trained property developer.
None of Deal’s appointees were outpolled by a challenger last night. One might read that two ways. Perhaps it’s a ratification of Deal’s decision to replace board members under threat of the DeKalb school system losing accreditation. Or, perhaps, it’s a testament to the power of incumbency. At 20 percent turnout I suspect the latter.
The third remaining runoff will test that assumption, and it’s probably the most important school board runoff in Georgia.
Karen Carter and Jim McMahan were effectively districted together in the new map reducing the school board to seven seats. The district covers Henderson, Lakeside, Smoke Rise and Tucker. It borders the Druid Hills cluster, of the contentious charter cluster debate last year.
Carter opposed the charter. McMahan supported it. The vote went 5-4 against granting charter status to the cluster.
Assuming the incumbent Mayfield — who also supported the charter — defeats Turner in a runoff, the result of the Carter-McMahan incumbent face-off may determine the future of charter schools in one of Georgia’s largest districts. It may also determine if the district moves toward adopting charter system status in 2015. Plainly, board members might change their minds in deliberation, but a McMahan win flips the majority as it lay now.
McMahan is a finance guy — a former options trader turned mortgage broker — and one of the three board members left in place after Deal’s purge last year. Carter is a department chair at Georgia Perimeter College and an attorney.
There’s a racial dimension to the contest; Carter is black, McMahan is white. Unlike most DeKalb politics I think that might only matter at the margins in this election. While the 4th district is majority white, only about half the school children living there are. The district is economically diverse and politically mottled. Refreshingly, neither candidate appears to have been making the subtle appeals to racial politics we’ve come to endure.
The personality and policy difference is a bit more stark.
McMahan — in his languid Bill Murray-esque delivery — also wants the system to emulate Gwinnett’s model, but is watching New Orleans’ recent movement away from centralization closely. He views increasing teacher salary while building financial reserves as a priority — although he concedes that it’s unrealistic to try to pull both off at once — and he holds the centralization of authority in DeKalb’s school bureaucracy in low esteem. “The vision I have for the DeKalb school district is a system of charter schools where we push down the governance to the communities.”
Facing a direct question about whether DeKalb’s school system should be broken up or have authority devolve into semi-autonomous charter clusters, Carter starts with a practiced, lawyerly demurral. “The General Assembly has to go through their process and we have to respond to what are the current needs. I think it’s a great idea for them to contemplate those issues and respond to the constituencies’ concerns. … My focus is what is happening in DeKalb County now,” she said. Only when pressed does she give a more direct answer, noting that Gwinnett’s system works without having broken up into smaller systems or schools. “We are one DeKalb.”
Notably, she also says that there are no excessive positions in the school administration and that salaries are in line with national averages.
In a four-way race, Carter outpolled McMahan 3389-2284, but about a third of the vote went to two anti-central office challengers. It’s hard to say if those voters will stay home out of disgust for incumbents or pick a team.
(Note: This story originally said that District 4 contained part of the Druid Hills cluster. It has been corrected to note that the district generally borders the cluster but contains few if any voters within it. My bad, y’all.)