Everton “EJ” Blair, shown campaigning in 2018, was the first African American elected to the Gwinnett County school board. School board members in Cobb and Gwinnett counties have been mostly white, while the districts they govern have become more racially diverse.
“There wasn’t that much kind of controversial or contested topic, discussion item that happened in the first year or so,” Blair said.
Then COVID-19 spread to Georgia.
Over the summer, Gwinnett County had the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state. Still, the school district seemed determined to go ahead with a plan to reopen schools in person. At first, Blair was the only board member who balked at the idea.
“I’m sorry … cannot understand how we can lead in the number of [COVID-19] cases in this state and not choose to do something else right now,” he said during a July board meeting.
Eventually, another board member publicly opposed starting the year in person. Soon afterward, Gwinnett Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks announced the district would begin the year virtually, with no in-person option. Blair says the disagreement among board members over school reopenings was puzzling.
“It’s not … that as the young person, as the person who’s more representative of the diversity in the community, that I’ll have these opposing views,” he said. “I think it’s just actually been like, ‘Who are you listening to? And what’s the leadership plan right now?’ And that’s where I think I’ve been a little surprised.”
“School reopening was a huge political issue this summer,” he said. “It’s making the… attention that’s given to what is normally kind of a sleepy local down-ballot race, much different and way more exciting.”
Three out of 5 Gwinnett school board members are up for reelection this year.
All three challengers are people of color. The incumbents are white.
The elections are partisan, so the county held primaries in June.
In the Democratic primary, the board’s longest-serving member, Louise Radloff, lost to challenger Dr. Tarece Johnson. Johnson is the presumed winner, even though she has a write-in challenger in the general election. Johnson said she was surprised by her primary win because she didn’t have the money to campaign the way Radloff did.
“I couldn’t afford a mailer. I couldn’t afford … text-messaging campaigns, robocalls, so I was really, really limited financially,” Johnson said. “When I saw [Radloff’s] mailer, I just thought … ‘People don’t even know me. They know her.’”
Radloff has served on the board since 1973 and has a Gwinnett school named after her.
Even so, Johnson won two-thirds of the vote. She said her victory may be due to residents’ desire for new leadership.
“They decided to vote for change, and so I think part of that has to do with … timing,” she said.
Johnson said with more national and local attention on equity issues, the time was right for her to run.
Not ‘A Snapshot In Time’
Raymond Pierce is the president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation (SEF). The Atlanta-based organization was formed after the Civil War to develop educational opportunities for African Americans. A lot of SEF’s current work focuses on equity and opportunities in K-12 schools.
Pierce says it’s important for students to have school board members who look like them.
“We believe that representation and the management of school boards, the governance of school boards, should be done through representation of the people whose children are being educated,” Pierce said. “They should have a voice.”
Pierce added that African American representation in governance bodies, like school boards, is relatively new.
“In the 153-year history since emancipation and the end of enslavement … for decades, you could not run for school board if you were Black,” he said. “[SEF doesn’t] look at this as a snapshot in time. We look at this as a continuation of … systemic inequities that have existed for over a century.”
Grassroots groups in both counties are pushing the school boards to recognize those inequities.
The Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP) held a rally in 2017 after a school resource officer was accused of slamming a Black high school student on the ground while trying to restrain him.
Some protesters called out the school board, saying it wasn’t responsive to incidents in schools that seemed to revolve around race.
“Some of the school board members have been here since 1979,” said the Rev. Frederick Phillips. “Back in that time, the population of people of color here in Gwinnett County was about 8%. Currently, the population here is 63% people of color. The time has come for change.”
Marlynn Tillman, who founded Gwinnett SToPP, is hopeful the board will change.
“The current board does not have the knowledge, background and wherewithal to be able to do something different,” she said. “So I’m excited for the change. I want to really be able to partner with the board on an honest level and with the school system on an honest level … talk about what works, honestly talk about what doesn’t.”
Tillman believes if the board becomes more diverse after the election, the body would be more likely to consider issues like how race can factor into school discipline.
“I believe that they would at least be open to a conversation on these issues,” Tillman said. “And that’s what we’re looking for.”
The same kinds of conversations are happening in Cobb County.
A group called Stronger Together has been urging the district to acknowledge and openly discuss allegations of racism in schools.
I’ve talked to mothers who have been broken down into tears about the fact that they feel they have to choose either educational excellence for their children or a supportive environment for their children.
— Jillian Ford, Cobb County parent and co-founder of Stronger Together
Cobb parent and college professor Jillian Ford is one of the group’s founders. She has been speaking at school board meetings for about three years, trying to get the board to address racist incidents that occur in schools.
“The people who sit on the school board are there — and should be there — to represent the communities which they serve,” Ford said. “And it’s clear that the incumbents at this point, not only don’t do that, they are hostile toward the idea of listening to the communities of color.”
The Cobb County School District said in a statement: “The personal experiences of each of our families are important starting points and our school leaders are both interested and available to address those experiences directly.”
After this election, Cobb could have a majority-minority board.
Jaha Howard was elected to the Cobb school board in 2018. A dentist by trade, Howard is currently one of three African American members of the board. At the time, board members were given a few minutes during each meeting to discuss whatever they wanted. At a meeting in August 2019, Howard brought up issues that affected some members of the district he represents.
“Depending on where you live in Cobb County, you have neighbors, family members that have been a part of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids, where family members or others that you know have been separated from their families,” Howard said. “These kids are coming to our schools.”
Howard went on to mention the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves brought to the U.S. and mentioned two recent incidents involving gun violence in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
“When people ask me, ‘Well, why are you outspoken about the cops, sheriff, or the detention center, or discipline?’ These things matter because it’s a part of our history,” Howard said. “It’s a part of our context.”
But Cobb school board meetings had been typically more upbeat, at least where board members were concerned.
Most members used their time to talk about various accomplishments in the district — from winning state championships to earning statewide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) certification.
Howard didn’t mind that but wanted to talk about tougher issues.
“I was not shocked, but just maybe surprised, about how entrenched that culture was to say, ‘Hey, let’s pat ourselves on the back, let’s celebrate all the good things,’ which is great. You want to do that, but it’s a very incomplete picture,” Howard said.
Shortly after the meeting where he mentioned ICE raids and the anniversary of slaves arriving in 1619, the board voted 4-3 to stop allowing members to comment at meetings. Like Gwinnett, Cobb also has partisan school board elections, and the vote broke along party and racial lines.
That hasn’t kept Howard from speaking out.
This month, at the school board’s first in-person meeting since COVID-19 shut down school buildings, Howard took a knee during the Pledge of Allegiance. He said the gesture was to honor the death of Kevil Wingo, an inmate who died at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center about a year ago.
Surveillance video shows Wingo asking for medical help and being ignored by employees. He died in a padded room. However, an investigation by the Cobb County Sheriff’s office found officials hadn’t violated any policies or committed a crime. The video surfaced recently, and Howard says he was disappointed county officials didn’t seem interested in following up.
“A lot of prayer went into this [decision to take a knee], a lot of consultation with Scripture,” he said. “And I thought about how do you love God and love people? How do you love your neighbor, and sometimes loving your neighbor is speaking out against injustice, doing the thing that’s hard.”
Howard says a change in the school board’s makeup could lead to more conversation around some of the social justice issues he’s brought up.
‘We Could Really Pay Attention’
Jillian Ford is also hoping for change. She’s the Cobb parent and college professor who co-founded Stronger Together. Like Gwinnett SToPP, the organization has been pushing the Cobb school board to confront issues involving race in individual schools.
“Our particular concern is the education and safety and well-being of Black and brown kids, by all means,” Ford said. “But … I would think that all folks would want for a board of education to be a place that might be able to foster generative dialogue.”
Stronger Together has endorsed the Democratic candidates in each Cobb school board race. Ford says she has spoken at several board meetings over the past two years and has tried unsuccessfully to meet with district officials.
Ford says some people of color move to Cobb County because of the district’s academic reputation. The school system consistently outpaces the state average when it comes to test scores and high school graduation rates. But Ford says some parents are surprised by the way their children are treated by other students or even teachers.
“I’ve talked to mothers who have been broken down into tears about the fact that they feel they have to choose either educational excellence for their children or a supportive environment for their children,” she said.
Ford said, similar to Gwinnett County, the pandemic caused Cobb parents to focus more intently on the school district. Parents tuned in to online board meetings.
“Everything obviously kind of shut down,” she said. “We were no longer burdened with our way-too-busy lives, so we could really pay attention.”
Like EJ Blair in Gwinnett County, Ford hopes parents will shift their attention to the upcoming school board races and turn out to vote.
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