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Candidate Q&A – District 1 Decatur School Board candidate Hans Utz

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Candidate Q&A – District 1 Decatur School Board candidate Hans Utz

Hans Utz

Editor’s note: Decaturish and the Tucker Observer have published an Elections Guide, a 76-page e-edition featuring Q&As with nearly every candidate running in our communities. To see it, click here. This special e-edition features candidates running for public office in Decatur, Avondale Estates, Atlanta City Council District 5, Clarkston Tucker and Stone Mountain.  There is a PDF version of this, which you can see by clicking here, but due to the format of this e-edition, we strongly encourage you to use the e-reader version.

Decaturish provided each candidate in our local races with a series of questions about local issues. Here are the answers of District 1 Decatur School Board candidate Hans Utz. He is unopposed. The answers have not been edited. 

1) Why are you running for this office?

I have three children currently in CSD and a fourth who cannot wait to join them, and so for more than another decade CSD will play an important role in the life of my family.  For the past few years, I have been increasingly concerned about decisions made by the CSD School Board, and have been vocal about those concerns in this paper.  It’s time to put my money where my mouth is and step up to run.

2) What makes you a better candidate than your opponents?

Unfortunately, I am running unopposed. While that makes for an easier campaign, I do not believe it serves the community’s best interests.  However, I am an excellent candidate for the CSD School Board because I have years of experience in complex public operations and finance, and I am an expert on public budgets, tax policy, and the compromises required to run a large public organization.

3) If elected, what are your top two or three priorities?  

First, governance:  I believe the CSD Board has proven ineffective at holding the Superintendent accountable in a manner transparent to the citizens of Decatur.  This must be fixed to restore CSD’s credibility with the community.

Second, responsible fiscal management:  There are significant and sustained issues with CSD’s budgeting and finance that have resulted in high (and growing) tax bills without a corresponding improvement in student outcomes.  Our community’s values and priorities are not clearly and transparently linked to CSD’s investments, and consequently we are paying a premium for our schools without a clear sense of what we are getting for that money.

Third, equity and inclusion: All children in our district should have the same access to educational resources and opportunities, and all teachers in the district should receive the same support from all levels of the administration.  CSD has significant issues recruiting and retaining Black teachers, and in recent years multiple troubling examples of inequitable treatment of students have come to light.  We must be able to maintain a robust number of Black teachers, and all students must be valued in all of their interactions.  We have work to do here.

4) In your opinion, what are the most important issues facing City Schools of Decatur?

In addition to the three priorities I named above, the next Board must select an experienced and visionary Superintendent, one with a clear perspective on equitable and creative instruction that sees and serves the whole child, and every child. Then the Board must hold the Superintendent accountable to accomplishing that vision.

5) Do you think the millage rate is putting a burden on homeowners? Do you think it should be lowered, remain the same or should it be increased?

Of course the millage rate is putting a burden on homeowners.  CSD is the largest portion of your tax bill, and the tax bill in Decatur is much higher than in surrounding areas.  The proper question is: are homeowners getting a good value from the schools for what they pay in taxes?  Unfortunately, the answer here is ‘unclear’.  I cannot say whether taxes should be lowered, remain the same, or increased, because I don’t actually have visibility into where the money is going or how my taxes have achieved the objectives of the system.  Fixing this is a huge priority of mine: every year, we should know exactly what the main objectives of the schools are, where the increases are going, what has been decreased, and how the changes will accomplish the objectives.  My sense is we underinvest in some critical areas like teacher pay, and we overspend on things that should be easily scalable like administrative and maintenance costs.

6) What will you do to advance equity and racial justice in City Schools of Decatur? 

First, we must hire and especially retain Black teachers and administrators.  CSD has consistently failed to do this well.  We should have individuals with the lived experience of these issues in front of students and within the administration supporting the teachers.

Second, we should continue ongoing bias training for all teachers and administrators, and we should have escalating consequences for teachers and administrators who fail to implement the training in their classrooms or spheres of influence.

Third, the Board itself should ask for and receive routine updates from the Equity Director that track equity initiatives and make transparent how the district is faring on its efforts.

Fourth, we should continually revisit our curriculum to identify and eliminate cultural knowledge gaps.  This is an ongoing effort and should absolutely solicit and integrate the perspective of students.

Last but not least, I think all of us as a community need to recognize that this is a process, and we are closer to the start than the finish.  It will, and it should, make us uncomfortable.  We ought to extend each other the grace necessary to do the work, but still hold each other accountable to actually do the work.

7) What is your opinion of the school district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies? Do you think the district is doing enough to protect students and staff? What do you think of the school district’s decision to mandate vaccines for students and staff? (Editor’s note: After Decaturish received the candidates’ Q&As, the school district determined it can’t mandate vaccines for students.)

I think CSD under the previous Superintendent squandered whatever goodwill it may have had through arbitrary and inconsistent decisions and poorly managed communications.  In recent months under the new Superintendent, I believe the schools have done a much better job of communicating their decisions, revisiting decisions as facts on the ground evolve, and ensuring that we as a community understand what factors the schools emphasize when making COVID-related policy.  I think CSD has struck a good balance between safety and in-person instruction, and they appear to be hewing to the recommendations of the CDC.  I absolutely and unreservedly support rigorous vaccine mandates.

8) What is your opinion of how the School Board handled the investigation of the previous superintendent, David Dude? If elected, would you advocate for releasing a full report about the investigator’s findings?

It is safe to say that the fiasco with the previous Superintendent is a primary factor motivating me to run for the Board.  I believe the Board itself is at fault for a number of the issues relating to Dr. Dude’s vacation and contract problems, and the fact that no report was released is highly problematic.   Absolutely everything that can be legally released must be released, and immediately.  Frankly this should not have to wait until the new Board is sworn in.

9) What is your opinion of the district’s current superintendent, Maggie Fehrman?

I believe that Dr. Fehrman has been a welcome improvement over Dr. Dude.  However, the new Board must still conduct a robust national search for the next Superintendent.  Dr.  Fehrman is welcome and encouraged to apply and compete for the position against the other candidates, and will be evaluated without bias, either pro or con, based on her current temporary position.

10) The School Board next year will likely be searching for a permanent replacement for David Dude. What are the qualities you would like to see in CSD’s next superintendent?

I believe the era of tactical, custodian Superintendents and passive Boards must end.  We don’t need another operator.  We need an experienced and visionary Superintendent, one with a clear perspective on equitable and creative instruction that sees and serves the whole child, and every child. Our job as the Board will be to hold the Superintendent accountable to accomplishing that vision.

11) What is CSD’s greatest strength?

Without question, it is the community that CSD serves that is its greatest strength.  It is easy to say that we have great students, parents, and teachers, and we absolutely do.  But we also have great retirees who volunteer their time to serve on committees for the schools even when they don’t have kids in the schools themselves.  It is the small businesses in this town that support fundraising.  It is Decatur as a whole community that is CSD’s greatest strength.

12) What is CSD’s biggest challenge?

COVID and Superintendent turmoil aside, both of which are hopefully temporary, CSD’s primary structural challenge has been the very rapid growth of students year-over-year for the past fifteen years or so.  It is safe to say that much of what stresses the schools right now, from instructional gaps to taxation levels, is a function of that growth.  CSD was a very small school system, and now is not.  Our approach to instruction and administration needs to catch up to our size.  To be clear, compared to Dekalb Public Schools we are still small, but CSD is substantially larger than it was fifteen years ago.

13) How would you address what you believe to be CSD’s biggest challenge?

It starts with selecting a visionary Superintendent with a clear philosophy of instruction.  Then, as Board members, we have to hold the Superintendent accountable to accomplishing the vision.  Every budget should make clear how the changes support the vision.  Every shift in the tax level should be clearly justified in terms of the vision.  The Board should demand routine updates on key initiatives, such as from the Equity Director.  At all times it should be very clear what we value, what we have invested in those values, and what we have accomplished from that investment.

14) If you are elected, what will you do to help students and families who have special needs and individualized education plans?

I admit that I am not a subject-matter expert on this topic and would hesitate to put forward policy suggestions without the input of parents who deal with these issues and the experts who have fixed these problems in other systems.  However, I can commit to seeking out that experience and expertise and crafting an approach that addresses this issue.  I am personally acquainted with a number of parents who have had to leave CSD because they have not received the support their children required from the schools, and that is simply unacceptable.

It is important to acknowledge the role the Board plays in CSD – we cannot simply engage operationally with the schools, since that is the strict purview of the Superintendent.  However, it is absolutely appropriate for the Board to set objectives and priorities for the Superintendent related to special needs and IEPs, and to hold the Superintendent accountable to accomplish those objectives, up to and including terminating the Superintendent if they are unable to meet the community’s expectations.

15) Do you support CSD’s current policy allowing transgender students to use facilities that correspond to their gender identities?

Yes.  Full stop, no qualifications.  I strongly encourage you not to vote for me if you feel differently.

16)  If you are elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner? How would you work to promote ethics and transparency in government?

Does anyone answer this question ‘No’?  I absolutely commit to conducting myself ethically and transparently and upholding the oath of office.  School Board members have a particularly critical role to play in the schools; they are the elected representatives of the community who serve explicitly to hold the Superintendent accountable to the taxpayers and citizens of Decatur.  A primary reason I am running is because I believe prior Boards erred by too often serving the Superintendent, rather than the other way around.  It is my intent to change that dynamic and ensure that the citizens of Decatur feel the Superintendent, the CSD Board and CSD at large are accountable to them.

More information about voting in the Nov. 2 election: 

All elections coverage can be found at Decaturishvotes.com and Tuckerobservervotes.com.  

Election Day is Nov. 2. Early voting will begin on Oct. 12 and will end on Oct. 29. The voter registration deadline is Oct. 4. To register to vote, click here.

To see a list of important dates in the 2021 election year, click here.

Voters in DeKalb County are eligible to apply for an absentee ballot as of Aug. 16. 

To apply for an absentee ballot:

— Visit the Georgia Secretary of State website.

—  Complete the absentee ballot application using the state’s official paper form. Use black or blue ink only.

Applications can be mailed to the county elections office at this address: DeKalb County Election office, 4380 Memorial Drive, Decatur, GA 30032-1239.

Applications can also be submitted by fax, 404-298-4038, or email, [email protected]

Voters may send an absentee ballot request for multiple people who live in the same household in the same envelope or email.

If an absentee ballot is not mailed to you, call DeKalb Elections office, 404-298-4020. You may still vote in person, either early or on Election Day.

An absentee ballot application must be received by Oct. 22.

In accordance with SB202, a new voting bill signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in March, a copy of a voter’s ID is required to apply for an absentee ballot. A Georgia driver’s license, Georgia state ID, Georgia voter card, U.S. Passport, U.S. military ID, employee ID issued by any branch of the federal or state government, tribal ID, or a document verifying a voter’s name and address – including a paycheck, utility bill, or bank statement – are accepted forms of ID.

Early voting begins Oct. 12 and ends Oct. 29. The hours for early voting are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There will also be weekend early voting on Oct. 16, 17, 23 and 24. Call your elections office for hours.

Beginning Oct. 12, you can participate in early voting at the following locations: 

– Bessie Branham Recreation Center (2051 Delano Drive NE, Atlanta, GA 30317)

– Lynwood Recreation Center (3360 Osborne Road NE, Brookhaven, GA 30319)

– Berean Christian Church – Family Life Center (2197 Young Road, Stone Mountain, GA 30088)

– DeKalb Voter Registration & Elections Office (4380 Memorial Drive, Suite 300, Decatur, GA 30032)

– Tucker-Reid H. Cofer Library (5234 LaVista Road, Tucker, GA 30084)

– Stonecrest Library (3123 Klondike Road, Stonecrest, GA 30038)

– County Line-Ellenwood Library (4331 River Road, Ellenwood, GA 30294)

– Dunwoody Library (5339 Chamblee Dunwoody Road., Dunwoody, GA 30338)

For the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding early voting times and locations, visit Decaturishvotes.com and Tuckerobservervotes.com or call 404-298-4020.  

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