At the end of April, Gov. Brian Kemp signed new education bills into law, but among North Georgia candidates for school board races, opinions are mixed on the effect the legislation will have.
Commenting that he wanted to keep “woke politics” out of the classroom and off the ball field, Kemp signed legislation including a parental bill of rights to increase transparency and encourage parent participation, a bill banning the teaching of divisive racial concepts, a bill that bans obscene books and a bill that prevents transgender boys from participating in girls’ sports.
There are seven school board seats in Walker, Catoosa and Whitfield counties up for grabs in the upcoming primary. All three counties have contested races, with 11 candidates seeking to represent their communities. Six of them spoke with the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week about their campaigns and the state’s efforts to effect change on the education landscape.
Early voting is underway, and day-of voting for non-partisan positions and the primary is May 24.
(READ MORE: Politics are still shaping Chattanooga-area public schools)
Two nonpartisan Walker County Board of Education posts are on the ballot this year. Mike Carruth is running unopposed for Post 3, while incumbent Karen Harden and Tony Ellis are competing for Post 2.
Harden, 65, has served on the five-seat board since December. The Rossville resident said she’s honored to serve the school system that educated her three children, as well as having been chosen to fill the seat of the late Carthell Rogers, who died last year.
So far, Harden said, she hasn’t heard any complaints from parents about divisive racial concepts being taught in Walker County’s schools, nor have there been any instances of transgender athletes seeking to play on girls’ sports teams.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” she said.
On the issue of transparency, Harden said she wants parents to be involved as much as possible by attending the school board’s monthly meetings and planning sessions. Graduation rates and test scores are on the rise in Walker County, she said, which she attributed to the school system’s “mission support” program, which provides trained teachers giving focused support to students who need it.
Two of her children were fast learners, while the other needed more help, she said.
“I got to experience all areas of education, and I feel like Walker County has added to their success. The educators that worked with them made sure each one of them, on their level, was successful.”
Ellis, her opponent for the Post 2 seat, could not be reached for comment.
Catoosa County Seat 4
Phil Kranz, 64, said he decided to run for a seat on the five-seat Catoosa County Public Schools Board of Education because of the lack of education in this country and his belief that what happens on a national level affects local communities. He’s running for the District 4 seat against incumbent David Moeller, who could not be reached for comment. School board seats in Catoosa County are nonpartisan.
“I think [crital race theory] is a bad thing. I think educators should be teaching, they should be educating — not indoctrinating,” Kranz said.
When he was younger, teachers kept their personal lives out of the classroom, he said, and schools should return to that norm.
Critical race theory in schools is a problem across the nation, he said, and “Catoosa County’s no different than any other county in the country.”
On the issue of transgender students in sports, the Ringgold resident said he thinks girls should be competing against girls, and boys against boys.
“If a boy decides he doesn’t want to be a boy, then let him compete with other like-minded people, but I don’t believe that they should be destroying girls’ sports,” he said.
Kranz said he thinks Catoosa County schools are good, but they can be better. Schools are top-heavy, he said, with too much money going to administration rather than educating students.
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When asked to give an example, he criticized a decision of the school board that stopped football players from running through a sign featuring Bible verses when they entered the field before games. The controversy first emerged in 2009 and came up again this fall, with the school board making the same decision, Kranz said.
“One lady complained [in 2009] and the administration jumped in really quick, one, two, three, and they said ‘Oh no, we can’t have this … separation of church and state,’ which I’m still trying to look in my Constitution to see where that exists, because it doesn’t,” Kranz said.
The separation of church traces its roots to the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” to explain the scope and effect of the clause was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 and written into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1879.
Kranz pledged not to ask for tax increases to fund schools. He said schools should be asked to “tighten their belts” just like everyone else. The United States has one of the highest per capita rates of spending on education in the world, he said, yet still has low test scores.
“So, obviously, money does not equate with a better education,” Kranz said.
The concept of giving parents school vouchers is something he thinks would increase competition and quality in education.
For the Catoosa County Board of Education District 2 seat, Jerry Jeffers is running unopposed. He could not be reached for comment.
Bill Worley is running unopposed for the Whitfield County Schools at-large seat in the Republican primary. He wrote in an email that he doesn’t think there are any big issues driving the election but thinks there are several candidates stepping up to run for the District 4 seat because the incumbent did not seek re-election in the nonpartisan race.
Jamie Johnson is vice chairwoman of the Whitfield County school board and is running unopposed for the District 2 seat in the Republican primary. In an email, he didn’t respond to questions about Georgia’s new education laws but said his plan going forward “is to continue my efforts to ensure the success of every student in the school system by supporting teachers, staff and parents in every way possible.”
Greg Williams, 43, is running to represent District 4 of the Whitfield County Schools board in the Republican primary. In a phone interview, he said he got involved in local education by building a countywide coalition of parents to increase vocational and agricultural opportunities for students. Amid that effort, one parent suggested he run for one of the five seats on the school board, the Rocky Face resident said.
“So here I am,” he said.
Williams said he has four children, and three of them are in the school system.
Based on his experience volunteering in schools, Williams said he hasn’t seen many issues relating to divisive race concepts or transgender student participation in sports in his community.
He credited school system administrators and board members for doing a good job in a position where hard decisions must be made.
“There’s really not, in my opinion, a ton of work to be done [on the issues addressed by the new education laws] here,” he said. “I think it’s going pretty smoothly, as far as all those things go.”
He said his opinion on Georgia’s new education laws is in line with Republican ideals.
“Here’s my thing on trans and racial [issues],” Williams said. “As long as we try to label people, that stuff is going to continue to be a problem. I would rather be known as just a man, just a dad. … and I’m sure most everybody out there is the same way.”
Williams said he knows both of the two candidates he’s running against — Joe Barnett and Amber McMahan — and said they’re good people.
“The voters are not gonna lose, no matter which direction they go,” Williams said.
Asked why he’s running, 55-year-old Dalton resident Barnett wrote in an online message that he has four children and has been in education as a teacher and administrator for 33 years.
“I wanted to offer that perspective to the discussion when it comes to board-level decisions,” he said.
Agreeing with Williams, Barnett said it was refreshing to see so many candidates running for the District 4 seat.
“I know with the three of us pursuing this seat, all three of us have our primary focus on what’s best for students and the opportunities we can provide for them as a school system and community,” he said.
Reflecting on his efforts to improve programs available, Williams said the administration and school board have been great and professional.
“If you’ve got a good idea as a parent, you’ve got to approach these folks, because that’s the only way they’re gonna hear a lot of this stuff. And it works. They’re great folks down here,” he said.
McMahan did not respond to a request to comment.
Contact Andrew Wilkins at email@example.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.