When most Americans think of elections, they think big. Senate races flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, Presidential elections tallying votes in the tens of millions. But for Atlantans, this year’s elections are smaller, but no less impactful for the community and its children.
The Atlanta Public School (APS) Board is on the ballot this year. Before 2020, all APS Board members were on the ballot at the same time, raising concerns of continuity and follow-through if initiatives were to be carried out by a completely different cohort of leaders than the ones who originally created them. After a 2020 decision to stagger Board elections, however, Board members serve four-year terms with one group of seats up for reelection every two years.
The Board, composed of six geographical districts and three at-large seats, has five seats up for election this year: geographic districts 1, 3, and 5, and at-large seats 7 and 9.
APS is one of the most consequential school districts in Georgia, lying at the epicenter of Georgia’s economy, university center, and most bustling city. APS currently serves over 45,000 students and is this year equipped with a budget of over $1.6 billion. Recent upticks in APS income from property taxes have allowed for pay increases for teachers, putting APS firmly in the 75th percentile for teacher salaries in the state, as well as providing sizable bonuses of $5,000 to the most at-risk schools in the district.
None of these improvements would have materialized be it not for the Board’s direction and for the superintendent that they as a Board are responsible for selecting. The Atlanta Board of Education’s nine members are in charge of establishing the policies and funding plan that run the district and exist as a point of access for parents to their children’s education, a duty the Board fulfills by hosting monthly public meetings. Board members do not just have to be strong leaders, however; to function effectively, the Board must be highly collaborative, both internally and with parents around the district to ensure that the diverse needs of students and their futures are taken into consideration.
Learn a bit more about this year’s APS candidates:
School Board District 1 encompasses Southeast Atlanta, home to Peachtree Center, Tech Square, Midtown, Little Five Points, and Inman Park. Katie Howard, the District 1 incumbent, is running unopposed. After graduating from Midtown High School, Howard attended Furman University in Greenville, SC, where she obtained a B.A. in Political Science and Urban Studies in 2000; she now lives in Grant Park. Previous to her role in the APS Board, she was a part of the Atlanta City Council as a Senior Council Aide and Policy Advisor to the Council District 8 office. According to her website, Howard’s focus lies in Social-Emotional Learning, childhood literacy, and equity.
School Board District 3 encompasses East Atlanta, including Cabbagetown, Edgewood, East Atlanta, Virginia-Highland, and Ansley Park. Candidate Michelle Olympiadis is the incumbent and has served in the seat for five years. Olympiadis is a first-generation American and the VP of communication for the Georgia Parent Teacher Association (PTA). She is an APS parent and a Board Member of Invest Atlanta, the “official economic development authority for the City of Atlanta.” According to her website, she is seeking “one last term” to serve the people of her district. Candidate Ken Zeff is running against Olympiadis; he is also an APS parent, and he was the former superintendent of Fulton County School. He has a doctorate from Georgia State University and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and he is the founding executive director of the childhood literacy organization Learn4Life. On his website, he describes his priorities which include decreasing bureaucracy in the central office and hiring a long-term superintendent.
School Board District 5 encompasses West Atlanta, which includes Grove Park, Carver Hills, Westhaven, Brookview Heights, and Westview. Erika Yvette Mitchell is the incumbent, and she has served in the position since 2017. As a student at Alabama State University, Mitchell was given a full athletic scholarship. Ever since, according to her website, she has worked within state and local politics, authoring the first school district’s Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, Trauma-Informed Practices, and Restorative Justice Practice policies and co-writing the Atlanta Public Schools Equity. Raynard Jackson is running against Mitchell. He has worked in IT management for multiple decades and holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Boston College. According to his website, he is a “lifelong resident of Atlanta,” and, if elected to the District 5 seat, seeks to push forth policy to help children recover from learning loss.
At-Large Seat 7
At-Large Seat 7 has three candidates vying for the position. Tamara Jones is the incumbent. With a bachelor’s from Wake Forest University and a master’s from the Georgia Institute of Technology, she is a resident of Inman Park and seeks to improve the collaboration between schools. Her website emphasizes her commitment to communication and maintaining equity in APS schools. Alfred Brooks is also running for Seat 7, and, if elected, would be the first active teacher to serve on the Board. He graduated from Georgia State University with a Bachelor’s in Public Policy, and he is the founder of “Teachers for Good Trouble,” a national network of teachers. His website focuses on his determination to implement restorative justice policies and improve technology infrastructure within APS schools. William Sardin is the third candidate. He is a graduate of Emory University, where he received his nursing degree; he has practiced as a registered nurse since. According to his website, he seeks to address students’ academic performance and address school bullying.
At-Large Seat 9
At-Large Seat 9 is home to two candidates looking to fill the seat. Jessica Johnson is the current appointed member for Seat 9. She received her master’s degree in public administration from American University, and she has lived in Southwest Atlanta for 15 years. According to her website, Jessica is the founder and executive director of the scholarship nonprofit The Scholarship Academy, which focuses on securing scholarships for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students. Nkoyoene Effiong Lewis is running against Johnson. She is a graduate of Brown University and the New York University School of Law. According to her website, she is the founder and Principal Attorney at the Effiong Firm LLC, a boutique education Atlanta law firm focusing on securing equity and education justice for communities of color.
Over the past few years, the APS Board has developed new goals that elected candidates will be tasked to execute, with a governance manual centered around student-focused outcomes. The first is literacy proficiency, measured by Georgia Milestones scores of APS students in grades 3-8. There has been progress in Milestones scores in the past few years, but further improvements are needed to reach the Board’s goal of 47 percent of students scoring proficient or above in reading. The second goal, numeracy proficiency, needs similar improvements to reach the goal of 45.4 percent Milestones proficiency by 2026.
This is why learning about candidates and voting in local elections — even when all candidates are running nonpartisan — are so important. Ensuring that Board members are adequately qualified and prepared to craft and carry out the policy necessary to improve APS students’ lives is crucial in solidifying the futures of Atlanta’s — and Georgia’s — next generation of leaders.
Voting day is November 7, 2023. To check your registration, see which candidates will be on your ballot, and find your voting location, visit mvp.sos.ga.gov.
Looking forward to next year, ensuring that all eligible Georgians are registered to vote is vital in preserving our democracy and electing leaders that will represent Georgia’s diverse interests most completely. The directions on how to register to vote–whether online or in-person–can be found at georgia.gov/register-vote.