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Decatur School Board, City Commission candidates discuss equity, opportunity during forum

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Decatur School Board, City Commission candidates discuss equity, opportunity during forum

Decatur School Board and City Commission candidates participated in a forum focused on equity issues on Monday, Oct. 25. The forum was hosted by the Decatur Justice Coalition at the Decatur Recreation Center. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Decatur, GA — Candidates running for the Decatur School Board and City Commission discussed various topics related to equity, justice and opportunity during a forum hosted by the Decatur Justice Coalition on Monday, Oct. 25. 

Candidates running for the School Board are incumbent board member Jana Johnson-Davis, who holds the at-large seat; Hans Utz running for the District 1 seat; and Dan Baskerville and Dr. Carmen Sulton running for the District 2 seat.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett and District 1 Commissioner Kelly Walsh are running for reelection. Katie Bell is also running for the District 1 seat.

During the forum, the candidates outlined their plans for their first 100 days in office would look like in terms of reversing the equity deficit for residents of color. Some of those goals included listening to a variety of perspectives to inform decisions, maintaining their sense of passion and urgency, and holding a joint meeting between the School Board and the City Commission.

Walsh said that she’d like to see the city move quickly on finding ways to accelerate the newly adopted strategic plan, in particular moving quickly to form a reparations task force. She also hopes to see the city make progress on missing middle and other affordable housing initiatives.

“If we could get a few votes in the first 100 days, that would include finalizing the intergovernmental agreement that we have poised to complete with the Decatur Housing Authority so that we can build the affordable housing complex that was affirmed and passed in the affordable housing addendum of the Legacy Park master plan. That would be a huge win,” Walsh said.

Garrett agreed and added that the City Commission could at least begin the interview process for the reparations task force during the first 100 days of the next term.

“Finally, in those 100 days, I think we’ll be able to really decide how our [American Rescue Plan Act] funding is going to be distributed and that can make a huge difference in our community  to see if we can put those in affordable housing or other initiatives that are so important to the city,” Garrett said.

At School Board meetings, the board members receive a report from all the schools with their test scores and discipline data that is broken down by different demographic. Johnson-Davis said that data shows that Black students are consistently underperforming compared to their white counterparts.

“I know that there are remediation efforts that have been implemented to try to close the academic slide that many of our students encountered during the pandemic,” Johnson-Davis said. “I’d like to get some information on how those efforts are going. I will use those instruments to monitor the progress that’s being made.”

Utz outlined what he would like to do in next year’s budget, as the bulk of the budget will be developed during those first 100 days.

“The budget is not just a set of financial numbers. It is the value statement of the community. It is the value statement of CSD,” Utz said. “I want to see in that budget, are the equity programs sufficiently funded? Is [Equity Director Mari Ann Banks] given the support she needs to be able to do what she needs to do? Are we paying teachers equitably and sufficiently for what we’re asking them? I’d love to see us emphasize instruction over administration.”

The School Board members also discussed their plans to improve CSD’s curriculum to highlight multiculturalism and increase the number of teachers trained to provide instruction that incorporates a pan-cultural perspective.

It’s time to now start holding people accountable, Utz said. As a board member, he would support regularly hearing about what needs to change at meetings, so that the board has concrete actions to correct them and can hold the superintendent accountable to do so.

“In my mind, the individual who’s accountable for this change is the superintendent,” he said. “Seeing these changes get worked into the curriculum starts with [Maggie Fehrman] or whoever the next superintendent will be, and we have to be very clear speaking as one voice from the board and the community that we want to see these changes made.”

Johnson-Davis will continue to push for decolonizing the curriculum, but said she also can’t diminish the impact of teacher training.

“Because some of this requires a complete mind shift for folks on how we have been raised and what we have been taught,” she said. “I’m at the point where we need this shift to happen a little bit quicker because this has caused too much harm for too long.”

Sulton would make sure the district is providing the budgetary and structural support the equity department needs to carry out its work. She added that the schools need to have bias trainers in the schools to look at assessments and the grading systems. She’d also like to see more diverse individuals in leadership positions.

“If we’re talking about reorganizing the curriculum and looking at discipline data, we need to make sure that the folks behind that work have unique and pointed perspectives,” Sulton said.

Baskerville agreed that the district needs to provide resources and change the curriculum and instruction to ensure all students are successful.

A board member of the special education PTA wondered how the city would make Decatur an inclusive and accommodating place for adults with disabilities to live.

Decatur has a significant number with disabilities. There is a L’Arche house in Oakhurst and another house is opening in the city, Garrett said.

“One of the things that we’re trying to make sure [we have] is that is we have safe sidewalks for wheelchairs,” she said. “I think we have some real housing opportunities at Legacy [Park] for almost cottage-type living for adults who may just need some assistance to live in community. We have the ability to partner with local businesses for employment as well.”

Walsh agreed that housing is one of the biggest places where the city can make an impact. She added that the city can do more with transportation, such as adding a circular bus, which is in the 2018 community transportation plan.

“We’ll be able to move forward with adaptive reuse plans for inclusive housing on the north side of Legacy Park,” Walsh said. “That’s part of the social contract in the master plan for Legacy Park that we’ve stayed honest with and close to.”

The first thing the city should do is acknowledge there are shortcomings and blind spots to make quick repairs to create an inclusive environment, Bell said. She also hopes the city will be active in community engagement and ask hard questions, as well as

“Something that I noticed in the strategic plan is that there was an idea of developing an outreach plan targeting diverse population groups, including expanded marketing efforts and media outlets,” Bell said. “So really encouraging diverse cultures to live, work and play in Decatur, whatever that culture might look like. I noticed that was checked off as something that has happened. I want to get curious and make sure we are revisiting things that may not have been looked closely at and really hearing things.”

More information about voting in the Nov. 2 election: 

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.

All election 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 was Oct. 4. To register to vote, click here.

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

People who wish to vote in person will need to bring one of the following forms of identification, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office:

– Any valid state or federal government-issued photo ID, including a free ID Card issued by your county registrar’s office or the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS)

– A Georgia Driver’s License, even if expired

– Valid employee photo ID from any branch, department, agency, or entity of the U.S. Government, Georgia, or any county, municipality, board, authority or other entity of this state

– Valid U.S. passport ID

– Valid U.S. military photo ID

– Valid tribal photo 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.

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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