Candidate Q&A: DeKalb County School Board District 2Georgia voter Tanja Mills. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Decaturish.com sent a Q&A to all candidates running for DeKalb County School Board. Here are the responses of the candidates running for District 2 in the May 24 election. Early voting starts May 2. To see your sample ballot, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter Page by clicking here. The answers have not been edited. Please note: the Q&As were submitted before the School Board Fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson Harris. All our elections coverage can be found at Decaturishvotes.com
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Candidate name: Wendy Hamilton
Candidate website: WendyForDeKalb.com
What is your occupation? Self Employed Hair Stylist
What neighborhood do you call home? Valley Brooks Estate (Laurel Ridge ES zoned)
Why are you running for this position? I’m running for BOE because we need change. So many of our schoolhouses in region 2 are poorly ventilated and falling apart. If we want to keep schools safely open during future covid waves we must shift from being reactive to proactive.
If elected, what are your top two or three priorities? Improve ventilation in our schools. Every classroom should have HEPA air purifiers in addition to fully functioning HVAC units. Change the culture of DCSD. I’m surprised at the disconnect between teachers and AIC leadership. Give teachers a seat at the planning table. I was shocked when I found out that most of the time DCSD teachers find out information at the same time as stakeholders. For example, teachers should’ve been involved with the planning of virtual learning, concurrent teaching, and the safe return to the classroom after the Covid-19 lockdown. Teachers are amazingly innovative.They know what works and what doesn’t in the classroom and they want their students to succeed! The CDC has amazing guidelines for the management of food allergies in the classroom. I’d like to see a district wide policy that would keep the 1 in 13 students with severe allergies safe.
How would you work to accomplish your priorities if elected? I’d ask DCSD to purchase quality HEPA air purifiers, CARES funding can cover this expense. I’d listen to stakeholders and the concerns of educators. I’d encourage leadership to establish a better working relationship with our teachers, include them in planning. I’d work with Nurse Harris to implement better food allergy mitigations for all our schools. Food policies vary by school, which isn’t equitable for students with life threatening allergies or others who are on medically necessary diets (diabetes, celiac, etc)
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength? We have amazing students and every engaged parents. Clearly our community wants our schools to succeed based on the amount of people running for the Board of Education seats this election cycle.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s biggest weakness? Lack of transparent communication. So many of our school building in region 2 are plagued with HVAC issues. Parents are now basing health decisions for their families on information the district is providing. The information DCSD shares with the public needs to be an unfiltered honest assessment, especially when it comes to heath and safety concerns.
How would you address the school district’s biggest weakness? Allow school admin to alert parents when there are HVAC issues at their child’s school. Trust is broken when critical information is withheld.
What is your opinion of the current superintendent? I’d really like to see Mrs. Watson-Harris communicate with stakeholders and staff in the clear, timely, transparent manor she promised when she came to DCSD.
What is your opinion of the school district’s latest comprehensive master plan? Perkins & Will has provided us with an excellent unbiased, professional assessment of our schools and suggestions on what we should prioritize. For the health and safety of our community we must work diligently to upgrade our failing facilities and alleviate overcrowding.
What is your opinion of the decision to remove Druid Hills High School from the district’s facilities renovation project list? I disagree with the decision to remove DHHS from the project list. This is the only school that was removed from the list. Perkins & Will placed the DHHS renovation in the first priority for capital improvements before the first floor was recently closed due to raw sewage issues. I’ve spoke with teachers who haven’t had functioning HVAC in their classroom for the decade they’ve been at DHHS. I don’t see how DCSD leadership felt comfortable with students and staff returning to the classroom after virtual learning when they knew many schools like DHHS do not have fully functioning HVAC. At minimum, we need HEPA air purifiers in every classroom and office space. APS has already done this.
Do you support creating early childhood learning centers in every region in the DeKalb County School District? Yes. Studies show that play based, early learning centers are beneficial to the community.
What is your opinion of how the school district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? I do not think DCSD has handled the COVID-19 pandemic well. Looking at the CMP we have 28 schools that are rated below 60 for the Facility Condition Assessment. The CDC has had improving indoor ventilation in schools as a key mitigation since they first released their guidelines. 22 of our schools have been scheduled for substantial HVAC and/or roof upgrades. The message we heard from leadership seemed purposely vague. I remember when Mrs. Watson-Harris told stakeholders that “all boilers have been activated at DCSD schools” when asked if each school had functioning heat. When pressed, she finally admitted that not every classroom in every schoolhouse had heat. Our community is relying on DCSD officials to honestly share with them the conditions of the schools in order to make the best decisions they can for health and safety of their families.
What is your opinion of the school district selecting Rudy Crew as a finalist for superintendent then deciding against hiring him? I do not understand why they only selected one finalist out of 68 applicants. Especially when a quick google search for Dr. Crew comes up with a long list of serious allegations ranging from bullying staff and students, covering up the alleged sex assault of a 14 year old, budgetary deficits and declining enrollment.
How would you work to avoid litigation against the school district and control spending on legal fees? We desperately need to improve the conditions on our school campuses. For example, the computer lab at DHHS is an accident waiting to happen. They have a signs warning of electric shock and a leaky roof. A parent on the DHMS Facebook page recently advised others to be careful when using the connections hall bathroom because the door frame has some exposed metal jutting out. Their child ended up in the ED after gashing a finger. Our campuses must be safe for our students and staff.
What should the school district’s spending priorities be? Improving the ventilation of our schools. We will see future waves of Covid-19. We need to be proactive instead of reactive. Thankfully our counties mask mandate slowed the spread of Covid-19 in our schools. Now that Governor Kemp has created a legal “opt-out” for parents to choose not to mask their students improving other mitigation measure (like ventilation) are extremely important to protect students and staff who are at higher risk for severe disease due to compromised immune systems. Public schools need to be safe for all, including individuals with compromised immune systems. Vaccination help to prevent severe disease, but there is still a risk of developing long covid even if you’re vaccinated. Allowing covid to spread uncheck in our schools could lead to a lifetime of health complications for our students and staff. I also would prioritize the hiring of more mental health professionals for students and staff. And programs aimed to close learning gaps.
What is your opinion of DCSD’s management of its finances, and how would you improve it? There’s a lot of wasteful spending in DCSD. Many schools reported that the mask they received from the district to give to students didn’t fit properly or provide adequate protection. We’re throwing away money if the items we purchase do not function properly. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the financial audit Vice-Chair DaCosta will be overseeing.
What would you do to improve teacher and staff morale and retention in the school district? Teachers all over the country are thinking of leaving education, for good, including DCSD teachers. Treating teachers respectfully would go a really long way. Simple things, like informing teachers in advance of changes so they aren’t finding out information when it’s released to the general public. Don’t try to “slip in” a new job description into an employment contract. Give teachers a seat at the planning table. They know what does and doesn’t work in the classroom. They also want their students to succeed. Let’s partner with them to create a better classroom environment for teachers and students. We also need to make sure teachers have what they need provided for them by the district. Teachers shouldn’t have to buy hand soap and cleaning supplies for their classrooms. Especially not when we have a 2 billion dollar budget.
Why should teachers work DeKalb County Schools instead of other districts? DCSD has many dedicated, talented, passionate teachers, school level administrators and support staff. I love the diversity in our community. I think we have a real opportunity right now to set DCSD apart from the other local districts. Let’s work with our teachers and staff and create a work environment where they feel respected and heard. Let’s become the district teachers want to stay in.
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? Yes. I’m not looking to become a career politician. I will be transparent and advocate for more transparency in our school system.
Candidate name: Whitney McGinniss
Candidate website: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/
What is your occupation? Nonprofit Administration, currently serving as a Grants Manager and civic association Vice President
What neighborhood do you call home? My family and I have lived in several District 2 neighborhoods – first near Avondale Estates, then Clairmont Heights, and now in North Druid Woods, near Laurel Ridge Elementary and Druid Hills Middle
Why are you running for this position? I am running for DeKalb School Board, District 2 because I believe that a strong public school system is vital to the health of our economy and our democracy. District 2 needs a candidate with a proven track record and established DCSD relationships
If elected, what are your top two or three priorities? COVID-19 Safety and Recovery* As we move beyond COVID-19, it is important to acknowledge that our children have suffered emotionally, socially, and academically over the last two years. If elected, I will push for programs designed to address the student wellness and academic gaps created by COVID-19. I will also prioritize in-person leaning and ensuring that our schools are safe for students and teachers. *Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion* DCSD is one of the most diverse districts in the nation – a majority-minority school district and home to students from more than 155 different countries. This diversity is one of our unique gifts, but it also presents special challenges. I believe that all children deserve the opportunity to succeed, regardless their zip code, race, ethnicity, household income, LGBTQ+ identity, immigration or disability status. *Building Construction and Maintenance* I speak more about this priority in other sections, but District 2 has some of the oldest and poorest-scoring school buildings within the DCSD system. I am the only candidate in this race with a proven record of bringing needed repairs to our older schools. You can see my complete list of school priorities on my website: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/schoolpriorities/
How would you work to accomplish your priorities if elected? *Partnership and Collaboration* Through my ongoing work with DCSD, as well as various nonprofits and community groups, I have developed strong working relationships with school administrators, government officials, and community leaders. I will leverage these partnerships to further my policy priorities. *Listening and Learning* As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was taught to observe my community, learn its culture, and meet with village elders before enacting major reforms or changes. If elected, I will bring a willingness and desire to listen and learn from all school stakeholders. *Evidence-Based Policy* COVID-19 has provided a stark reminder that scientific inquiry and evidence-based policy lead to better results than intuition or ideology. Wherever possible, I will look at educational research, district data, and proven policies to inform my decisions.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength? I believe that DCSD has several strengths, including our teachers and staff, diversity, and community engagement. My daughter has had phenomenal teachers, who worked with her and recognized her individual talents. Our teachers and staff must also be commended for their incredible dedication and adaptability during the pandemic. Similarly, our diverse student body provides tremendous informal learning opportunities, whether learning a few phases of a foreign language on the playground or sharing stories and experiences from another perspective. These encounters prepare our children for success in an increasingly diverse, global, and interconnected world. Finally, many of our schools benefit from having strong and engaged communities, with individuals willing to dedicate their time and expertise to support our schools. Whether it is helping with a classroom party or organizing a staff appreciation drive, these relatively small efforts have a large collective impact.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s biggest weakness? According to a 2019 stakeholder assessment, facilities are DCSD’s biggest weakness. That is why you will find it on my list of top school priorities. In District 2, we are all familiar with the problems that plague our aging school buildings – leaky roofs, poorly functioning heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing backups, lack of ADA accessibility, unsafe electrical systems, bathrooms with broken fixtures and stall doors, and “hidden health hazards” such as mold, lead, and asbestos. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these concerns have been brought to the forefront, with many parents challenging school reopening because our *facilities* were not ready. Poorly maintained buildings present a huge challenge, not only for student education, but also for staff and teacher retention. You can learn more about my priorities and prior work in this area here: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/schoolpriorities/#Facilities and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZRKHSmmWy8.
How would you address the school district’s biggest weakness? I am the only candidate in this race with a proven record of bringing needed repairs to our older schools. As for how I would address these challenges: 1. I was happy to see the development of DCSD’s Comprehensive Master Plan (CMP). If elected to serve, I will encourage the board to use the CMP as a roadmap for where to focus our maintenance and capital improvement dollars. 2. Over the last seven years, the operations department has had five different chief, interim, or deputy operating officers. I will work with the BOE and DCSD leadership to hire and keep an experienced professional who can bring stability, vision, and accountability to this department. 3. DCSD needs to be proactive, rather than reactive, in addressing maintenance and facility needs. I will focus the district on preventive maintenance, catching $500 problems before they become $50,000 problems. You can learn more about my maintenance and facilities advocacy here: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/localadvocacy/
What is your opinion of the current superintendent? DeKalb County Schools needs stable leadership. Over the last seven years, the district has had four superintendents. Cheryl Watson-Harris came to our district in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and we were embarking on what would become nearly a full school year of virtual instruction. Overall, I have been impressed with Ms. Watson-Harris’s leadership during what has been a trying time for school districts across the country. She comes to us with a wealth of knowledge and experience, having worked in leadership positions for the nation’s largest school district, and she has received high praise from DCSD educators and staff. Ms. Watson-Harris is expected to complete her PhD this year. I would like to see her stay and grow with our district. She has already demonstrated that she is tough – a necessary trait to lead DeKalb County Schools. I also believe she has a positive and ambitious vision for our district.
What is your opinion of the school district’s latest comprehensive master plan? As a representative for the Laurel Ridge Shamrock Civic Association, I participated in the CMP process from both the parent and community perspectives. I felt the process was transparent, methodical, data-driven, and responsive to stakeholder feedback. However, I understand and expect that the CMP will not please everyone. I also think it is important to understand that the CMP is a roadmap, but not one the district is strictly limited to for the next 10 years. Old, outdated, overcrowded, and poorly maintained school buildings are a serious problem in our district and one that impacts the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff. The CMP is a thoughtful and illuminating blueprint to help us tackle this important challenge.
What is your opinion of the decision to remove Druid Hills High School from the district’s facilities renovation project list? I support the inclusion of all eight projects on the facilities renovation list, including the Druid Hills High School modernization project. Despite its impressive appearance on the outside, the Druid Hills High School building suffers from chronic water intrusion, many major building systems that are beyond their service life, and a campus layout that prevents emergency vehicle access to the back half of the school campus. The main Druid Hills High School building is nearly 100 years old and has not been updated to keep pace with modern educational standards. Although I understand there are issues with the site that the currently recommended project would not fully address (eg – athletics and parking), this is the least expensive and least disruptive proposal, favored by the community and architectural experts. Thus, I support the project as it was originally recommended in the CMP. You can view my School Board statement on this topic here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf6WFrUDKIk
Do you support creating early childhood learning centers in every region in the DeKalb County School District? Yes, I support the continued expansion of DCSD’s early childhood learning program and have listed it as one of my school priorities. Educational research has shown that by the time children enter kindergarten, low-income, minority, and other vulnerable students are already behind their more advantaged peers. High-quality preschool and pre-K programs have been proven effective in closing this gap and preparing these students for academic success. However, as with all DCSD programs, monitoring the effectiveness of our early learning centers and looking for areas of cost savings (or cost offset through grants and other reimbursements) is important. You can read more about my diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility plans here: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/schoolpriorities/#Equity
What is your opinion of how the school district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? It is easy to “Monday morning quarterback” DCSD’s COVID-19 response. As a seasoned government and nonprofit professional, I know these were difficult decisions guaranteed to distress some segment of the population, no matter what course of action the district took. However, like many of you, I am a DCSD parent, who struggled to navigate an ever-changing virtual learning landscape last school year, while juggling employment responsibilities and advocating for my child’s wellbeing. Ultimately, I believe the district’s shortcomings during COVID-19 were many of the same issues that existed *before* the pandemic, including poorly maintained school buildings, unsatisfactory communication with parents, inadequate support for low-income and minority students, and an opaque and slow-moving bureaucracy. The question is, how do we move forward from here? Read more about my COVID-19 school priorities: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/schoolpriorities/#COVID
What is your opinion of the school district selecting Rudy Crew as a finalist for superintendent then deciding against hiring him? NO ANSWER PROVIDED
How would you work to avoid litigation against the school district and control spending on legal fees? Effective communication is one of the most important tools any business or government entity has against litigation. This includes setting clear expectations, explaining decisions and policy changes, promptly answering questions, being compassionate and empathetic, and responding appropriately to complaints before they escalate to the point of lawsuits. Anyone who has worked with DCSD knows that effective communication is something the district continues to struggle with and an area I intend to improve. If elected to serve, I would also avoid litigation by working on: 1. Proper and complete documentation across all schools and departments, 2. Regular training on the multitude of laws governing public education, and 3. Identifying patterns in litigation and targeting specific area of district operations for improvement. As your representative, I would take this multi-pronged approach to avoiding district litigation, starting with more open and honest communication.
What should the school district’s spending priorities be? Spending priorities should align with and support DCSD’s strategic goals and objectives. I agree with the 2019-2024 DCSD strategic plan priority areas, which are: Student Success with Equity and Access, Stakeholder Engagement and Communication, Staff Effectiveness, Culture and Climate, Organizational Excellence, and Facilities. Notably, this document was developed before COVID-19, so I would add to this list: funding for COVID-19 related needs such as in-school public health measures, virtual learning technologies, learning loss mitigation, and mental health services. In addition to supporting strategic goals and objectives, DCSD’s budget must cover state and federal mandates, such as transportation and meal services, support for English language learners, and access for students with disabilities.
What is your opinion of DCSD’s management of its finances, and how would you improve it? If elected to serve, financial oversight would be one of my primary School Board responsibilities. For perfectly valid and understandable reasons, many DeKalb County citizens have a distrust of our government institutions, including the school district. DCSD was placed on provisional accreditation status in 2012 over fiscal management and other concerns, and as recently as 2019, state auditors found DCSD did not have proper bookkeeping practices (although there was no evidence of illegal activity or wrongdoing). I am encouraged by DCSD’s decision, in 2020, to hire Charles Burbridge, who is well-respected in the financial community and comes to DCSD with 30+ years of experience. Indeed, state officials and various news outlets have reported that DCSD’s financial management has improved in recent years. As your representative, I will work to continue the improvements already underway and restore public trust in the district’s financial management practices.
What would you do to improve teacher and staff morale and retention in the school district? Dedicated and well-qualified teachers and staff are a school district’s most valuable resource. School districts across the country face mounting pressure to attract and retain high-quality teachers, mostly due to a lack of interest in teaching as a profession. In fall 2021, DCSD announced several teacher incentives, including hiring, retention, and vaccination bonuses. However, Atlanta Public Schools announced their own incentive package shortly thereafter. This “arms race” makes it more challenging for DCSD to attract and retain top talent. In addition to salaries, teachers report that increased autonomy and decision making, greater respect for their profession and support from administrators, and reduced paperwork burdens are other factors that increase retention. If elected to serve, I would advocate for these additional factors, along with increased pay and benefits, as ways to improve teacher and staff morale and retention.
Why should teachers work DeKalb County Schools instead of other districts? NO ANSWER PROVIDED
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? The importance of transparency and ethical conduct in public office cannot be overstated, and therefore it is one of my top school priorities. With 15+ years of government and nonprofit experience, I have seen the good and bad of our public institutions. And I have demonstrated my commitment to behave ethically, even when those around me are not. If elected to serve, I will continue to hold myself to the highest personal and professional standards. I will promote transparency by communicating openly and honestly with parents and the community about the challenges we face as a district, and I will engage regularly with constituents by visiting schools, hosting community meetings, and sharing on social media. I will also challenge the School Board to be more accessible and transparent. You are read more about my views on ethics and transparency here: https://whitneyfordekalb.com/schoolpriorities/#Transparency and https://whitneyfordekalb.com/localadvocacy/#Whistleblower
Candidate name: Steven Bowden
Candidate website: www.votebowden.com
What is your occupation? Preconstruction Manager
What neighborhood do you call home? Ashford Park
Why are you running for this position? I want to make sure that the school system is the best it can be to deliver the best education for ALL students. DeKalb has lost sight of the fact the success of our students should be the number one priority.
If elected, what are your top two or three priorities? Ensure that parents and teachers feel that they have a voice in the decision making process. This has been lost in DeKalb. Focus on the facilities for our students and teachers to ensure that the schools are not overcrowded and are updated and maintained so we can provide the best possible learning environment. Increase the transparency and accountability for the administration. All of the stakeholder deserve to know how tax payer money is being spent.
How would you work to accomplish your priorities if elected? Parents and teachers deserve a voice and they need to be heard. School board meetings need to be in person again. No more closed door meetings. I will work hard to make sure money is allocated to our aging facilities. Students deserve a safe environment that they are comfortable in so they can focus on learning. Teachers should feel safe and have a student population that is right sized. I will work to get the school board to open up the books. The public should have access to audited financial statements to see where the money is going.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength? We are a diverse county and I think this diversity carries over into education giving students a diversity of thought. We are also in the heart of Atlanta and should be using that as a strength to attract the top teachers.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s biggest weakness? I think it is trust. There is a lack of trust with the administration of the county. Students, teachers, and parents need to know the why behind the decisions that are being made. These decisions should not be made behind closed doors. Not filing the proper financial disclosure for how tax payer money is being spent is also feeding the lack of trust. The school board needs to take the steps to be transparent and gain the trust back again.
How would you address the school district’s biggest weakness? School board meetings need to be open and invite anyone who wants to attend be a part of the process. Board meetings need to take place at a time that people can come and attend. The administration needs to be financially transparent as I have already stated. Finally, the board needs to communicate better. During COVID there was no communication as to the reason why certain decisions were made. The public deserves to know.
What is your opinion of the current superintendent? I think Mrs. Watson-Harris has had a tough job to do navigating the district through COVID. She had to make some tough decisions that were not going to be popular. I look forward to seeing her leadership now that COVID isn’t the main focus.
What is your opinion of the school district’s latest comprehensive master plan? I am encouraged to see a plan to address overcrowding. I agree that the over crowding and under utilization needs to be addressed. The main issue I have with the plan is how will everything be paid for? The plan doesn’t address funding for the projects. I see a lot of new and renovated schools in the plan but there needs to also be a clear plan with where the money will come from.
What is your opinion of the decision to remove Druid Hills High School from the district’s facilities renovation project list?
I question how the FCA scores were determined. The district needs to better communicate how the scores were determined and what criteria was used to select which schools would be renovated or replaced. Druid Hills High School is an aging school that needs to be renovated.
Do you support creating early childhood learning centers in every region in the DeKalb County School District?
I question what the purpose of these centers would be and where the funding would come from. If these centers would be taking funding from other projects (such as a Druid Hills High School renovation), then I think that the early learning centers should be re-evaluated. We need to focus on our existing school facilities first before beginning new programs.
What is your opinion of how the school district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? I think the pandemic was a difficult time that required difficult decisions. I think that the district ultimately made the right choice to go back in person and to remove the masks from the students. However, I think that decision was made too late in both instances. Our students will fall further behind as shown via test scores and will essentially have to figure out how to catch up after a missed year of in-person learning. They did not receive the same level of instruction and learning virtually. The teachers did the best job that they could, but nothing replace being in a classroom in front of a teacher.
What is your opinion of the school district selecting Rudy Crew as a finalist for superintendent then deciding against hiring him? I think that this situation was a difficult one and could have been handled better. If the board had reservations about hiring him, additional due diligence and discussion should have taken place before selecting him as a finalist.
How would you work to avoid litigation against the school district and control spending on legal fees? I would make sure that all district business would be conducted in an ethical manner and that all district rules and regulations are followed. If the district were to get involved in litigation, I would work with the board to monitor the situation closely and ensure that resources were being properly utilized.
What should the school district’s spending priorities be? The district should focus on updating and upgrading the schools. They should also be evaluating the compensation of our teachers so that we can be sure that we are attracting the top talent for teachers. Finally, the district should be spending money on resources and programs that will increase the success of the students. The students education should be the top priority for every decision that the board makes.
What is your opinion of DCSD’s management of its finances, and how would you improve it? I honestly don’t know how the finances are managed as the district is not transparent. How is the money being spent? The community deserves to know where tax payer dollars are going. The appropriate financial reports and disclosures are not being filed. This need to happen and it needs to happen now.
What would you do to improve teacher and staff morale and retention in the school district? Teachers compensation needs to be evaluated to be sure that it is comparable to other districts. The teachers need a work life balance. Teachers should not have to work on their lunch break. They should have dedicated time for planning and not be expected to do planning in the off-hours. When it is time to go home for the day, they should be able to leave work at work and have an outlet to relax and unwind.
Why should teachers work DeKalb County Schools instead of other districts? DeKalb is a diverse county and teachers will have the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students. DeKalb understands how important the teachers are to success. I would work hard to ensure teacher compensation is competitive and would explore other retention programs to make sure our teachers remain happy. Teachers are critical to the success of the district.
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? As a parent, I understand the importance of the district being seen as ethical and transparent. Honestly the district is lacking in both of those areas in its current state. As I previously said I will work to make board meetings in person and open to the public. No part of board meetings should take place behind closed doors. The tax payers need to know where the money is going. The county needs to be filing the appropriate financial disclosures and they have not been doing that. I will work to make sure that changes and changes now.
Candidate name: Candice D. McKinley
Candidate website: www.candicefordekalb.com
What is your occupation? Attorney
What neighborhood do you call home? Avondale Hills
Why are you running for this position? As a mother, educator, and attorney, I believe education is the greatest equalizer. I am running because it is imperative that all students are given the opportunity to access an excellent education.
If elected, what are your top two or three priorities? School Safety and Well-Being: Our schools in District #2 need immediate attention to ensure they are safe places for our students/teachers/staff. The attention must be on both operational upgrades and intentionality to social and emotional supports inside our schools. When our students/staff come into spaces that are not safe and do not feel safe due to wellness challenges from COVID-19, other mental health issues, or ineffective discipline policies –there is a dire problem. We must act now. Equity and Justice: The way to true equity is speaking openly and honestly about the inequalities that persist in our schools. When we do not have courageous conversations with those who may not look like us or embody our beliefs– we are doing a disservice to ourselves and our students. In the last two years, we have experienced a vicious health pandemic as well as a social justice reckoning that has drastically changed how we live and how our students learn. Financial Transparency for Innovation: You know where the priority is when you know where the money is spent. We must be fiscally responsible with our students’ funds. We must use state, local, and federal dollars for sustainable and long-term growth of our District.
How would you work to accomplish your priorities if elected? All ideas expressed will be implemented with a collective effort from students/parents/ community partnerships, teachers/staff, and District leadership. I am here to serve and will not move on an initiative without the voice of all at the table. Our District has done little to address the social emotional needs of our scholars acknowledge the causal link between mental health and discipline of our students. As a result, school violence (social media bullying, assaults, etc..) are at all an all-time high resulting in increased expulsions. By keeping students in school and providing the services for the student’s educational and social emotional needs instead of explosion. We can begin to reverse the statistics that have characterized our District as a contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline and establish School Justice Partnerships.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s greatest strength? Diversity is our greatest strength. In District 2, we are a metropolis of culture and heritage. Specifically, the International Community School (“ICS’) supports a student body of fifty percent or more immigrant student population and the Cross Keys cluster includes one of highest levels of Latinx student population in the District. It’s imperative to recognize and include communities of color that are doing the work necessary to see academic results for their students.
What do you think is DeKalb County School District’s biggest weakness? As diversity is our greatest strength, it is our Achilles heel in terms of representation and leadership. Representation matters at all levels including at our local schools, reflected in our administration, and on the Board. Even though our District boasts of its diversity, little is seen at the administrative level and higher. Why is that? Is there something intrinsically woven into the fabric of the leadership that has controlled the District for decades that will not allow change? These are the questions that plaque my mind and fuel me to seek a seat on the Board. I am a product of a multi-cultural heritage that embraces diverse cultures and understands the need for all to be a part of the change we want to see in the world. Until we spend time unpacking topics that are difficult that lead to schools like ICS and Cross Keys not being at the forefront of discussions that directly affect them…we will continue to be stagnant and not see true diversity in all our schools.
How would you address the school district’s biggest weakness? To address the diversity and representation issue—I would expose it directly. Highlight the benefits of the school’s academic offerings such as Cross Keys’ highly sought-after career paths at their DeKalb High School Technology Center. Most are not aware that Cross Keys prepares juniors and seniors for careers in nursing, dentistry, graphic design, and so many other paths students finish the program with a skill set to enter the workforce. Similarly, feature ICS and their global approach to learning through their International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme which enables students to employ an investigative, inquiry-based approach to learning. Both of these phenomenal schools have extraordinary staff/parents/students that we can learn from by sharing across school environments their special sauce that shows through in student achievement.
What is your opinion of the current superintendent? If elected, I would work alongside Superintendent Watson-Harris, the District leadership, other Board members, and community to stay student centered and laser focused on policy improvements that will undoubtedly lead to students’ success. I believe that Superintendent Watson-Harris has come to our District to do the work she has been called to do even when that is hard work: a pandemic, workforce downturn, and teacher morale. My goal is to learn more about how she intends to see our strategic plan goals come to fruition over the next several years. My Grandmother has always told me to not take any wooden nickels from anyone and to always stay faithful. Meaning that people will try and get you off your path. However, there is a higher purpose in life that you must listen to and be guided by their inner voice called faith.
What is your opinion of the school district’s latest comprehensive master plan? The developers of The Comprehensive Master Plan (“CMP”) have considered multiple layers of contingencies while relying on data analysis and input from stakeholders. The process is fluid without the rigidness of any definite implementation plan. As a taxpayer and mother of two in the DHHS cluster, I will remain engaged in the process as the current recommendations proposed are solidified for the benefit of One DeKalb. I implore anyone interested in learning more about the CMP to visit and get involved at: https://www.dekalbschoolsga.org/comprehensive-master-plan/
What is your opinion of the decision to remove Druid Hills High School from the district’s facilities renovation project list? My immediate reaction was to learn more about the Board’s reasoning for their decision at the March 2022 Board meeting. Next, I attended the E-SPLOST community input meeting and participated in DHHS’s newly formed Task Force for Modernization as a parent of a scholar at DHHS. More importantly, I talked to the students at DHHS and they simply want a school that has working air conditioning/heat and functional bathrooms. I tell them, it will happen, and we are working to make sure it happens sooner rather than later. In my legal practice when there is an issue that needs a resolution, I always gather the facts. Here, it is my understanding that DHHS will be renovated during the 2022-2023 year and that the current overhang project is already completed over the crosswalk areas. The safety of students is vital. I will work to keep the District accountable to the operational projects outlined for DHHS.
Do you support creating early childhood learning centers in every region in the DeKalb County School District? Yes, whole heartedly. Statistics show that early learning for pre-K students is the best way to set them up for success. As a former first grade teacher, I had several students in my class who did not attend school until the first grade. Many of my students did not know how to read, write, or even hold a book. I had to adjust my curriculum to accommodate differentiated learning tactics for my pre-k students so they could learn phonetic awareness. I taught basic reading modalities to my students rigorously to catch them up to a first-grade level. The work was challenging but impactful because I could see the determination in my student’s eyes as they became proficient readers and eventually excellent writers within a school year.
What is your opinion of how the school district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic? The District’s handling of the pandemic has been subpar. Upon the return to in-person learning, the District did not take the proactive steps to fully protect staff/students. To this day, I strongly believe that I contracted COVID-19 while working at the District’s administrative building. I am a two-time COVID-19 survivor. I could not fathom contracting it for a third time, spreading it to my children and/or my mother by remaining in an environment that did not place my health as a top priority. One vital policy that I commit to institute is a work from home safety protocol in case another health crisis occurs or an unprecedented natural disaster that prevents in-person contact. Even though I speak from my specific situation, I know that the District can do better. I intend to bring my personal experience with COVID-19 along with five other family members to the Board to show how one poor decision can have a devastating effect on many.
What is your opinion of the school district selecting Rudy Crew as a finalist for superintendent then deciding against hiring him? The Board handles employment related matters during executive session which is not open to the public. Without having access to the facts regarding the employment of Mr. Crew, I cannot speak to this issue.
How would you work to avoid litigation against the school district and control spending on legal fees? Currently, the majority of the District’s legal issues are handled by outside counsel. To understand how litigation is being handled and the cost associated with the change from in-house attorneys to outside counsel, the following should occur: 1) an audit of outside counsel’s retainer agreement & billable hours versus in-house salaried attorneys; 2) litigation strategy; 3) quantitative analysis of settlements; and 4) the cost of litigating cases to trial. In 2012, I worked at an employment firm that handled the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal cases representing teachers that were whistleblowers. The intense investigations and preparation that it took to bring these cases to trial in the federal court system gave me an early insight into litigation management. The key to ward off litigation is to have sound policies, review policies on an annual basis, and have excellent legal counsel.
What should the school district’s spending priorities be? The District’s top spending priorities must be centered around student academic success, teacher training/professional development, and well-being. At this time, the latter is the most critical because without wellness which includes both mental and physical health there is minimal gains in other areas. We must normalize well-being as what we do in the District and not what we just say. The creation of wellness supports is critical that are imbedded in each of our local schools as well as the administration buildings. These supports must be informed by student/teacher/staff input that provides exactly what they need and not what the District believes they should have as we transition from two-years of isolation and trauma.
What is your opinion of DCSD’s management of its finances, and how would you improve it? The District’s finances are clearer however there is always room for improvement. I take the Board’s duty as the District’s fiduciary agent of the approximate 2M dollars extremely seriously. By working with the Finance Department, the other Board members, and Superintendent Watson-Harris, we can collectively balance our finances that actually reflect the needs of the District. I would consult with Mrs. Anna Hill, District #1, who has an accounting background to gain a greater insight on how to improve the District’s financial health. Lastly, study the past five to ten years of the District’s profit and loss and quarterly reports to look for trends. The trends will inform our decisions to add/subtract specific line items to align our funding to the District’s vision.
What would you do to improve teacher and staff morale and retention in the school district? When staff/teachers feel valued and heard then retention will improve. As a former employee in the Office of Legal Affairs and the School Innovation Department, I gained first hand experience into the needs of District employees. First, a focus on well-being is necessary because COVID-19 has drastically change how we live, learn, and teach. Additional wellness/mental health days codified into District staff’s human resources material so teachers/staff can fully take care of themselves. A broader understanding, awareness, and opportunity to speak in confidence to the Human Relations Department. Teachers/staff must know that their rights will not be violated or retaliated when they submit a grievance for investigation. There must be a paradigm shift of belongingness and a willingness to meet teachers/staff where they are and provide them just as much support (mentally, physically, and emotionally) as we do our students.
Why should teachers work DeKalb County Schools instead of other districts? As a former teacher in Atlanta Public Schools during the “Teacher Cheating Scandal,” I experienced the unspoken rule/policy of working to keep my job. Our teachers are leaders, they have autonomy and can freely teach the standards according to the needs of their students. I will work with our teachers to keep their professional autonomy to teach and not be under the State’s directive of recent legislation targeting “divisive concepts” in school.
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? As a practicing attorney, I took an oath to adhere to The Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct. In my law practice, I treat my clients like family while making sure I communicate throughout the litigation process as we work as a team to resolve their case. I am adamant about being clear, honest, and candid in all my endeavors. I am committed to bringing this type of openness and transparency to the Board. In working in conjunction with the Superintendent Watson-Harris and the Office of Data/Research, I will assist in the expansion of the forward-facing community dashboards to provide up to date information about our school’s academic performance. I will work to help expand the dashboard’s capability by gathering community input into what are the most important data points they would like to see to make informed decisions on school choice, leadership, and culture/climate.
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