Dr. Melvin Johnson, who retired in 2004, worked for more than 37 years in the DeKalb system, with 18 of them in administration. Two of his four children graduated recently from Redan High School.
Johnson, 68, of Stone Mountain said he wants to work with other board members to help restore excellence in DeKalb schools.
“For most of my career in DeKalb, we had one of the best school systems in the state and in the nation. You see that going in the opposite direction,” he said. “You restore it by being successful in student achievement and performance and by ensuring fiscal responsibility and accountability.”
Johnson is the only School Board candidate in DeKalb who has been endorsed by the Georgia Federation of Teachers.
Johnson said he wants to eliminate teacher furlough days and restore salary increases and other fringe benefits for teachers.
“We need to send a message to teachers that we want to support them so there will not be a revolving door in DeKalb County,” he said. “To get good teachers is one thing, but we want them to stay in DeKalb. We want them to retire in DeKalb.”
Current District 6 board member Thomas E. Bowen is not running for re-election. He considered running against County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton for her District 4 seat but did not get into the race.
The School Board’s District 6 includes Stephenson and Stone Mountain high schools and Champion Theme School.
The other candidates for the district are Atlanta Public Schools social worker Dr. Terriyln Rivers-Cannon and child advocates Denise E. McGill and Latasha Walker.
Rivers-Cannon, 44, lives in the Snellville area. Her daughter is going to the seventh grade at Stephenson Middle School. She previously worked as a special education teacher and school social worker in DeKalb.
Rivers-Cannon said she would deal with issues brought before the School Board in a compassionate way and said she wants to build a sense of unity on the board.
McGill, 51, is a Stone Mountain business consultant and co-founder of a nonprofit youth advocacy program, Stone Mountain-Lithonia Youth Empowerment Services Inc. She has two children who graduated from Stephenson High School.
This week, McGill was endorsed by eduKALB, an organization comprising business, civic, government and community representatives that works for quality School Board leadership in DeKalb.
Active in PTA for 15 years, with 11 years in PTA office, McGill said her personal goal is to ensure that children are given equal educations. She also wants parents to be better informed.
“DeKalb has a history of divide and conquer. That takes the focus off the real issue,” McGill said. “They like to operate with chaos and confusion. With an informed parent, you get the type of participation you want.”
Walker, 38, is a personal chef/caterer, personal assistant and part-time nanny. Her daughter will attend DeKalb School of the Arts in the fall.
Walker said she’s running for office because of her dissatisfaction with the School Board’s decisions.
“Tax dollars are being wasted. Teacher morale is down. … Public trust is not where it should be,” Walker said. “It’s time for the School Board to have someone who is research-driven.”
Walker said the difference between her and her opponents is that she is already known for working in the trenches on thorny school issues.
Walker and several other parents started a group that is now called ABC, Advocates on Behalf of Children. ABC worked to help change bullying legislation, fought a proposed military school and pushed for a forensic audit of the school system’s finances.
“Google my name and DeKalb and you’ll see what sets me apart,” Walker said. “You may not know my name, but my works as a parent and community leader are well-known.”
Facing one of the school system’s worst budget deficits, the DeKalb School Board voted this month to raise taxes for the first time in 10 years. The 1-mill rate increase will raise the tax rate to 23.98 mills and will cost the owner of a $100,000 house $27.50 more a year in property taxes.
Board members Nancy Jester, Don McChesney, Pam Speaks and Paul Womack voted against the tax hike.
School officials recommended increasing the millage rate to help plug an $85 million shortfall for the 2012-2013 operating budget of $760 million.
The board also is considering laying off 250 teachers and 120 paraprofessionals at savings of $16.7 million. The teacher cuts, which include 120 pre-k teachers the school district proposes to rehire with a subsidy provided by the state, would save $14 million, and the paraprofessionals cut would save $2.7 million.
Addressing the budget was high on the candidates’ lists of the top three issues they would face as board members.
For Walker, the top issues are improving student achievement, balancing the budget and acquiring good leadership, specifically School Board leadership.
“When [board members] say, ‘I didn’t know,’ that’s just not good enough,” she said.
Rivers-Cannon said the top three issues she’s hearing are from employees who are worried about their jobs, parents concerned about transportation for theme schools, and people who are “wondering if the right decisions are being made on their behalf.”
Johnson listed student achievement, support of teachers and fiscal responsibility as the top issues facing the school system.
McGill said class sizes need to be reduced; high teacher turnover needs to be addressed; and fewer standardized tests should be required.
CrossRoadsNews reported on July 7 that 1,194 DeKalb high school seniors — or one in five — failed to graduate last spring.
Candidates for District 6 said efforts to prevent such scenarios should begin early in children’s lives.
Rivers-Cannon said students should learn about what’s to come in high school in the seventh grade — the curriculum, the tests they’ll take, and expectations for graduation.
Walker said early childhood education is critical. She also said students need to be able to choose good alternatives to the traditional school program.
McGill said the school system has focused on the wrong thing.
“We’ve done a lot of pushing students through that were not ready to move to another grade level,” she said. “Our focus has been on testing and not on getting them to a point where they can be self-sufficient and productive. We don’t give children basic skills.”
Johnson said programs should be evaluated to make sure they are meeting students’ needs and said there should be staff development programs for all teachers.
July 31 ballot questions
All four candidates said they will vote against a cell tower proposal on the ballot. They all cited concerns about possible ill health effects from the towers.
Voters are being asked in a non-binding advisory referendum whether the school system should be allowed to place or operate telecommunication towers on school property.
State legislators have been seeking ways to prevent the location of more cell towers on DeKalb Schools property after a July 12, 2011, vote by the DeKalb School Board to allow T-Mobile to locate 150-foot-high towers on nine school properties for up to 30 years. Most of those schools are in South DeKalb.
The candidates’ answers were mixed on the regional T-SPLOST question, which would levy a 1-cent sales tax for transportation improvements over 10 years.
Johnson and Rivers-Cannon said they will vote “yes,” while McGill and Walker will vote “no.”
Johnson said T-SPLOST will provide jobs and services “and an opportunity to fill some of the transportation gaps we have.”
McGill said she has already voted against the measure.
“I don’t feel that the tax is being equitably distributed throughout the county,” she said.
More election coverage:
Early voting sites open July 23
Candidates feel pinch as campaign donations dwindle
Current T-SPLOST is not worthy of our support
Ellis faces two newcomers in his bid for another term
Ellis a no-show as CEO challengers share views at forums
CEO Candidate cries foul over voting site
Biomass facility a big factor in District 5 commission race
Speaks, businesswoman vie for District 8 School Board seat
Three newcomers seek to unseat Womack on School Board
Indictment alleges candidate misused investment money
Forum set at Clarkston First Baptist