The Most Important School Board Runoff In Georgia

May 21, 2014 16:17 pm

by George Chidi · 23 comments

School busFirst things first: none of the clowns in DeKalb won.

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.)

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

linuxfanatic May 21, 2014 at 5:14 pm

“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.”

Wishful thinking. The folks in DeKalb were not going to react to a white Republican governor that they oppose and detest sacking a bunch of locally elected black Democrats with parades, cake and dancing in the streets (or anything else that can be used in a Deal re-election campaign or – more importantly – against the concept of black Democrat dominated political leadership) but the complete and total lack of grassroots anger, opposition or even REACTION to Deal’s potentially very risky and controversial move says the otherwise. Had thousands – perhaps even only hundreds – of enraged DeKalb voters and parents protested a “hostile takeover” of DeKalb schools by nefarious outside conservative Republican forces installing puppet rulers, things could have gotten really controversial. And some activists and politicians DID try to make an issue of it. There were angry meetings with the governor by the CBC, lawsuits, you name it. The people totally, utterly rejected them.

As far as the racial thing goes, if it is an issue, I suspect that it will be the opposite of what you believe. There is a disconnect between the black rank and file and the black leadership on charter schools. (Black voters overwhelmingly support charter schools. A small majority of black voters even supports school vouchers.) The only portion of the electorate that opposes charter schools – beyond interest groups like teacher’s unions of course – is white progressives. Now there just happen to be plenty of white progressives in DeKalb.

What has been happening is that black voters who support charter schools have been electing black politicians who oppose them. But that is changing, kind of. The Atlanta school board now has a pro-charter school majority (although it is possible that the gentrifying newcomers to the city played a role in displacing the old guard). Not to make APS a charter district or anything like that, but a lot of the charter school applications that have been bottled up by the APS board (please realize that the law and constitutional amendment to create a second board to review charter school applications that were rejected locally was aimed almost entirely at APS … just as APS was the impetus to pass the bill that allows the governor to remove school board members) in years past will now be approved.

Maybe Mahan should make a racial appeal, come to think of it. He could come out and state that the only reason for blacks to vote against him when he has the same position on charter schools as he does is his race. That if the contest were between a white charter opponent and a black charter supporter, he would get elected in a walk. It would be risky, but if he finds himself down in the polls, it would be worth a shot. If nothing else, it would force Karen Carter to have to explain why she is right and most black voters in DeKalb are wrong.

George Chidi May 21, 2014 at 5:32 pm

I think it’s probably a mistake to make blanket statements about how any part of the electorate views charter schools. To say there’s a majority for any view gives short shrift to where I suspect the real majority lay — people who haven’t made up their mind. It’s an economically and politically complex question, regardless, and people will answer it based on situational factors.

If you have polling numbers backing your claim that a majority of black voters approve of charter schools, link it for inspection, please. The last AJC poll on the subject two years ago showed the opposite — about 40 percent of nonwhite voters supporting charters, with half opposed and the rest undecided. http://www.ajc.com/news/education/charter-amendment-poll/

I’m not sure what you think I believe on the racial issue in this contest, besides my observation that I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference.

linuxfanatic May 21, 2014 at 8:12 pm

One civil turn deserves a response.

http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2013/08/13/southern-black-voters-overwhelmingly-favor-school-choice-poll-finds

Feel free to consider the source as partisan and biased, but it is consistent with what I have seen. Including this column by Jamelle Bouie of Slate.com, hardly a conservative source, which also references black support for charter schools: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/05/the_gop_and_black_voters_the_republican_party_could_win_african_american.html

George Chidi May 21, 2014 at 11:25 pm

I’m a big fan of Bouie at Slate. He’s the best thing on their site right now. He doesn’t exactly say that black voters overwhelmingly favor charter schools, though, only that support for charter schools might be part of a broader recipe to attract black voters, and I agree.

The Heartland poll was conducted by Magellan Strategies … which is about as in the bag as you can get. There’s bias, and then there’s Tom Tancredo is going to win a governor’s race biased. I still consider judgments about the views of black voters on charter schools as difficult to gauge.

I read your reply on another thread, looking at voter outreach to broaden the demographic reach of the Republican Party. I find your political acumen impressive, for what it’s worth to hear from me. Keep it up.

MattMD May 22, 2014 at 12:19 am

When is DeKalb County going to pull itself together? In the past 14 years this county has assassinated a sheriff-elect, have it schools almost lose their accreditation and suspended a CEO.

If some clown like Vernon Jones gets elected I really think they are headed to Clayton status.

ellendk May 22, 2014 at 6:10 am

DeKalb is a mess, but you are right there is something positive in Jay Cunningham’s loss, but it was to close for comfort. I gotta tell you, though, a real problem in DeKalb is the lack of quality candidates to start with.

McMahan isn’t such a great candidate either. Nothing he has done publicly shows his frustration with the central office size or salaries. He has yet to reject a personnel appointment or to demand accountability publicly. Carter asks harder, more pointed, questions than McMahan.

I am hearing that behind the scenes Thurmond spends an extraordinary amount of energy trying to keep the board members from pressing too hard. Mayfield clearly isn’t folding to this pressure. It would be nice if the representative from District 4 would not fold as well. At this point, I can’t figure out who that is.

joselette May 22, 2014 at 11:55 am

@ellendk

Unfortunately, neither of these 2 candidates have a strong enough will to stand up to Thurmond. We have seen that over the last 16 months. Look at the transcripts of the board meeting where Thurmond wanted and received $50,000/month to hire MLA and spend $300,000 on baseball field improvements for Redan HS. Both District 4 candidates were shamefully week.

http://factchecker.stanjester.com/recorded-meetings/board-meetings/03032014-workbusiness/

no2Decatur May 23, 2014 at 12:19 pm

In District 3, I am quite sure Atticus LeBlanc is not the answer. He has run a racially divisive campaign, which is definitely not what the Board needs. He sent out 3500 flyers with him and his family on it to mainly white voters. He sent out approximately 4500 flyers with an African American woman on there and equated his quest for the school Board with the Civil Rights movement. He then posted on Midway Woods list-serve a very, unbecoming of a potential School Board member, message to me. He has battled No2Decatur on twitter and Facebook. If he gets this anger on a list-serve how will he deal with other members on the School Board and with parents that don’t agree with his decision? Battle them on Twitter. He has stoked the fears of neighbors in his northern most district and used false advertising for his constituents in S. DeKalb.
Why not send the same flyer to everyone in the district. That is what Dr. Erwin did. He has stayed above the fray and run a clean campaign.
The trouble with the Druid Hills Cluster and what no one talks about is that the organizing committee would be the Board. There wouldn’t be any input from the families that are most affected. On top of that is the fact that all future board members would be nominated, not voted on, by those that would currently be on Druid Hills Cluster Board.
In addition, there would be no oversight over the budget other than those same Druid Hill cluster fiefdom. That’s $40 million dollars with no oversight.
Lastly, with freedom to move it does nothing for Avondale Elementary now. Currently ALL middle class families over here try to get into Museum School, Waldorf or Friends or they move. I even know of a couple that is letting their house go into a strategic foreclosure and are renting in City of Decatur.
With the Cluster everyone will try to get into Fernback and it’s nearly full now and it does nothing for Avondale.
Atticus has no platform other than he says he’ll vote to get Druid Hills Cluster, not realizing there is a still a huge task ahead to getting back full accreditation.
Lastly, I was blasted on that list-serve because I brought up the fact that Atticus sent out separate flyers, yet no one, I repeat no one, gave a good explanation of WHY they were voting for Atticus, only that they wanted to spite me. Our Democratic process at it’s best.

George Chidi May 23, 2014 at 1:01 pm

This is probably worth mentioning, assuming Atticus LeBlanc doesn’t chime in himself: LeBlanc through social media has denied sending out the flyers mentioned by no2Decatur and condemned the mailing. The flyers are attributed to “DeKalb Democrats for Change” which has no registration either with the Georgia Secretary of State or with the DeKalb elections board.

Curiously, the address on the flyer, PO Box 1483, Stone Mountain, Ga., 30086, happens to be the same post office box registered to the campaign of DeKalb County’s indicted former CEO, Burrell Ellis. (His phone number is disconnected, otherwise, I’d ask him about it.) On its face I have no reason to believe the address is any more legitimate than the fake political group.

This campaign has become weird enough to be worth watching.

George Chidi May 23, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Curiouser and curiouser.

After an exchange with no2Decatur about the provenance of the mailer, the image on the anti-LeBlanc page disappeared.

Fortunately … I made a copy.

I am reasonably certain now that the number in the corner is for a bulk mailer with the imprint license of Atlanta 5856. If anyone happens to know who that is, feel free to post the evidence.

atticusleblanc May 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm

For anyone that’s interested in my candidacy, please see http://www.electatticus.com for my platform.
And no2decatur / Kevin Polite, I did not separate those mailings based on race, nor did I have anything to do with any attack ads whatsoever. I’ve informed you multiple times of both facts, and even offered to prove it to anyone who’s interested. I am not sure why you continue to attack me through a phony website (electatticusleblanc.com), fake email addresses, and harassing posts online; but I will continue to volunteer my time to improve DeKalb Schools because I think it needs to be done. I hope that you may find joy and fulfillment in pursuing more positive endeavors.

no2Decatur May 23, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Wow, Ok who thinks Atticus is ethical? On Midway Woods website you indicate you sent 2 mailers. One had your family the other a black female and something about “equal right”
We’ve agreed and you posted you sent out a total of 8000. Why 2 separate mailers and how’d you determine where and which to send.
See everyone what I mean about his temper and his attempt to harass and intimidate. Do we want a candidate on the board like that? LEBLANC ATTICUS B 2619 CHARLESGATE AVE 15 202 10 012

no2Decatur May 23, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Wow, Ok who thinks Atticus is ethical? On Midway Woods website you indicate you sent 2 mailers. One had your family the other a black female and something about “equal right”
We’ve agreed and you posted you sent out a total of 8000. Why 2 separate mailers and how’d you determine where and which to send.
See everyone what I mean about his temper and his attempt to harass and intimidate. Do we want a candidate on the board like that?

George Chidi May 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm

I took a closer look at the mailer in the image. While the address was blanked out, the intelligent bar code at the bottom was not.

The address is yours, Mr. Polite. {Address redacted by editor} County tax records indicate that you own the property. The bulk mailer corresponds to Discount Mailing Service on Perkerson Road, which is unsurprising. They’re commonly used by DeKalb-area Democrats for bulk mailings, including Jesse Cunningham, Eugene Walker and Sharon Barnes-Sutton.

You’re claiming that LeBlanc said he was responsible for this mailing. Show me. Link the thread, please.

no2Decatur May 23, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Wow, you emailed me and pretended you were a journalist. When I wouldn’t engage with you you sent emails cursing me out
George Chidi
CEO, Neon Flag
PO Box 1523
Pine Lake, Ga., 30072
678-824-4187

George Chidi May 24, 2014 at 12:26 am

First, know that I live as a public figure of sorts. My address and phone number are hardly secrets.

Second, as I review our increasingly bizarre email interaction, I note that you sent me an email cursing me out, while I refrained from profanity and vulgarity.

The last you sent consisted of: “Fu***ng arrogrant As***le, he admits he sent the flyers. Never claimed I was a journalist. You integrity is lacking as a journalist would never publish a persons address. I’m traveling and can’t send. You fu***ng moron.”

Oy.

And third, I am not “pretending” to be a journalist. I am a journalist. (An opinion columnist on a blog, I suppose, but still.) I’m also a market research consultant, when I want to make actual money. No one is paying me to either harass you or be harassed by you, so I suppose the joke’s on me.

I’m about ready to disengage and watch for meteors. I offer you now, publicly, the advice I offered privately: stop. I am a tremendous admirer of Dr. Erwin and you are harming his campaign.

no2crazy May 23, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Seems like Michael Erwin is running the negative campaign with his buddy Kevin as the spokesperson.

George Chidi May 24, 2014 at 12:27 am

I strongly doubt this fellow is much more than a strap-hanger on the ride.

ellendk May 24, 2014 at 6:00 am

no2crazy

I think no2decatur has no official role in Erwin’s campaign. The mailer, though, is confusing and I am unclear which candidate it was meant to help as it only told you who not to vote for.

The return address is very peculiar.

I will say that LeBlanc’s platform seems simplistic and a bit out of touch with the realities of DeKalb schools. DCSS has lots of school choice (his family participates) but things haven’t improved for the system or the children not in choice schools. There aren’t nearly enough seats at the schools of choice or schools worth choosing for your child. I believe in school choice, but without fundamental changes at the central office, most children will be left to suffer in weak schools.

atticusleblanc May 24, 2014 at 7:04 am

Ellendk,
I would invite your input as to what you feel is necessary for improving DeKalb schools.
The school choice message is a part, but hardly all of my platform. However, it has seemed to be a message that resonates. The current system offers school choice in a very limited capacity, and I think it needs to be expanded and better publicized. I understand the limitations of the policy as a standalone, which is why I would make the proposal as a “both, and” proposition in conjunction with inviting more established charters into South DeKalb like KIPP, BES, or Success. You can read and critique the platform on my website at electatticus.com under “The Issues.” In my opinion, the single most important factors for improving DeKalb schools in the near term will be the hiring of a new superintendent and ensuring that more than 61% of our dollars are actually making it to the classroom. Unfortunately, these messages haven’t resonated as loudly in our district.

no2Decatur May 24, 2014 at 7:31 am

George, We didn’t realize it was your “byline” When us approached me you didn’t identify yourself, nor did you indicate the you were with the website, nor that you would be “publishing” this article and taking our comments out of context. You’ve taken words out of context by mentioning names and advocating for Atticus. Unfortunately, We played into your game and were tricked into this unfortunate dialogue. A reporter knowing that safety issues are involved would never be so reckless as to publish someones address. A professional also would not do so out of spite because a group or individual didn’t want to engage with him. You have made many false statements which is either liable or slander and you do a disservice to your name. I hope your readers will see that you had an agenda from the beginning. If you are t o become a serious journalist, you need to be aware that there are certain rules you should abide by. Your anger at us clearly shows. I can’t imagine a NYT or AJC reporter publishes someone’s address when it had no relation to the article. Yes, you’ll get a few people angry at No2Decatur, but you’ll get 50x more who will read and find your and our actions distasteful and you will lose readers and respect. We wish you the best and will no longer help you get more eyeballs, which is what this is all about.
Lastly, the website http://www.electatticusleblanc.com is coming down Friday. I believe Atticus will shot himself in the foot sooner or later. Trolling around on sites like this is going to come back and bite him. It takes one real reporter to see this and report it and then everyone will know the real Atticus. His tweets are out there as well and he’ll trip himself and we’ll be the first to have discovered.

jmacs12000 May 24, 2014 at 9:38 am

Thanks for the informative article. It’s tough for someone without kids in the DeKalb system to grasp just what the heck is going on in the school system. Controversy in the news, costs out of control, school supers being let go and walking away with huge settlements, cheating, etc, etc. And oh yes, test scores showing poor student progress. I met Ms. Carter and thought her highly qualified. Admittedly, I met her opponent, Mr. McMahan, briefly, but you know the thing about first impressions? I wasn’t impressed. I would like to think we vote for people because they are the best qualified so I am now very perplexed why anyone still can’t see Charter Schools offer an alternative to what some perceive as poorly run schools. I’ve heard and read all the arguments.

PS would like to read/hear more about Common Core as I’ve heard pros and cons but little of substance.

advocateforchange May 27, 2014 at 6:18 pm

First of all the mailer was not sent out by the Democrat Party. Atticus is a republican and has the support of the Republican Party. I could see a mailer coming out from this address. However, if it was it was sent by some republican supporters who used the address to throw people off. I am sure that Atticus does not want to be pegged as a Republican due to running in the district he is running. It is also true that Republicans might have sent out a piece to republicans in the district to try to help Atticus. Whether you were a democrat or republican may have depended on which flyer the district voter got.