By DAVID HWANG
With Election Day less than a month away, most eyes are on the presidential race. But local residents of Gwinnett County are ready to place their vote in a different race: the position of Gwinnett County Board of Education District 1.
Carole Boyce, a Republican candidate who currently holds the school board position, and Jennah Es-Sudan, a Democratic nominee, are the two candidates vying for the candidacy.
Both Boyce and Es-Sudan have educational experience on their resume. Boyce is a former teacher and administrator. She has served on the board since January 2005, defeating the opposition to get re-elected in November of 2008. Es-Sudan worked as a teacher for Dekalb County Board of Health for special needs children from 1976-1988.
The Gwinnett County School Board position is defined as “a member of a board of policy makers.” The group sets the vision for county schools and ensures that everything is going as planned. They hire the superintendent, who in turn hires principals, assistant principals, teachers and assistants whose duties are to make sure that the operation runs as efficiently as possible. They are also in charge of working with the budget, negotiating teacher contracts with unions, overseeing the academic calendar, and approving educational curriculum as well as deciding on whether to close or maintain certain schools.
Five districts make up the Gwinnett County school system. District 1 oversees the cities of Duncan, Rocky Creek, Hog Mountain, Dacula, Harbins, Bay Creek, Lawrenceville, and Rockbridge.
Focus on Educational Funding
Both the Republican and the Democratic campaigns focus on educational funding and this issue highlights the different points of view of the two camps.
Es-Sudan, currently serving as the president and CEO of AMEX Tax & Accounting, Inc., believes that she has a greater understanding of how to handle the educational finances.
“I feel areas that can be improved upon should include the budget, which allows for raises to its employees, handling of taxpayer dollars, decreasing the size of classrooms and improved and challenging instructions for all children. Other areas of concern would be external audits of financial statements,” Es-Sudan said.
The budget is seen as something that has not improved over time and Es-Sudan explains the cause for this trend.
“Gwinnett County Public Schools has had difficulty managing their limited funds for the past decade and it seems to have become more difficult each year. Sadly, budget challenges have led to larger classrooms, no raises to employees and furlough days for teachers. This should be of major concern for people who care about public schools,” Es-Sudan said.
Es-Sudan sees such poor financial management as a downfall for current and future students.
“Whether we’re talking about the national economy or the Gwinnett County schools’ budget, we operate in a changed financial world,” Es-Sudan said. “This has been described as the new normal. The changes center on more belt-tightening and less certainty about the future of our children’s education.
Boyce, on the other hand, sees the funding problem as a lack of resources rather than a misuse of the limited funds that were available to the county.
“Funding is a tremendous problem. The economy certainly has hurt a tremendous amount. But even when things were going well there were quite a few state cuts called off at a state level, cutting down educational funding,” Boyce said. “Our citizens value education tremendously. We have not had to cut programs, but we have cut just about everything else. Class sizes have been increased; teachers have been furloughed, but again, on a very limited basis. We’re in better shape than in some communities around but it’s starting to be a real, real issue.”
Graduation Rates, Poor Test Scores an Issue
Es-Sudan is passionate about another issue; that of graduation rates. She is specifically concerned about the graduation rate of minority students.
“I’m driven by the current poor test scores, low graduation rates, budget and increasing the retention rate of minority students in the 21st century [school] system. More and more minority students are failing in the current system,” Es-Sudan said. “I’m going to place more emphasis on the No Child Left Behind program, and I believe that there are different ways to asses a child’s ability other than standardized tests.”
Boyce offers her explanation concerning graduation rates.
“The graduation rates are somewhat deceptive. There is a new method to doing that. If a student comes in by 9th grade, and they don’t graduate in four years and one summer, it’s counted against the school as a dropout. And that’s not really always accurate. Sometimes some kids need some extra time and so forth. It is extremely important for all of us, for all kids to graduate, but some kids need a little bit more time,” Boyce said.
Boyce also voices her concerns regarding minority students, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between the parents, students, and teachers.
“Sometimes some new people in the community, perhaps some who may have come from other countries may not feel as comfortable initially coming into our system. They may feel uncomfortable with the language, they may feel uncomfortable with the expectations and so forth,” Boyce said.
Title I is a federally funded program that provides services to schools based on students’ economic needs. Boyce applauds the way the Title I Schools have handled parent centers by sharing with families how they can help their children in the class room and taking materials home.
“It’s a great thing, because all parents want their children to do well,” Boyce said.
Buford resident and avid Republican Sally Carington believes that Boyce is the right person for the job due to the success that Gwinnett schools have had in regards to maintaining programs such as music and arts.
“I’m a firm believer of the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ Gwinnett schools continue the trend of sending high school graduates off to colleges and universities. This is accomplished despite having virtually no money in the budget. We have more students going off to the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia State than some of our neighboring counties,” said Carington, who was a teacher for 19 years.
Having two sons enrolled in high school, she understands the educational concerns of Gwinnett County residents.
“It’s tough for everybody right now. Public schools are suffering like everybody else. They want to improve in different areas, but with a shaky economy and a lack of funding, you can only go so far. We need more money for our children’s education,” Carington said.
Angela Shin, a social worker and a mother of two young children, believes that a new school board administration might turn things around.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint where the major cause of concern lies. I believe that the county is doing all it can to maintain a certain level of quality within the school systems. I have definitely seen some changes since my girl entered the 3rd grade,” Shin said. “The class sizes have gotten bigger, and it’s getting so large that I’m worried that her class size will be the size of the lecture-sized classes I had in college. Maybe it’s time for someone else to give it a try.”
Charter Schools and Amendment One
Despite their conflicting ideologies, Boyce and Es-Sudan agree on one particular issue. Amendment One, one of two amendments proposed to the state’s constitution this year, is the issue of whether the state government or the local school board offices should have the power to approve charter schools. Both agree that the wording of the issue is misleading and deceptive.
Boyce is adamantly against Amendment One.
“There is really no need for this duplicate school system to be setup, this charter school commission; there is no need for it. It is an unnecessary level of bureaucracy that’s going to be sapping funds and perhaps setting up a parallel school system where you’re going to have one school that’s controlled by the state, and one controlled in the same area by the local school board, and it’s unnecessary,” Boyce said.
“The concern is not charter schools,” Es-Sudan said. “The issue is who has the right to authorize and oversee them to ensure that they are accountable to the people who pay their property taxes, which fund them. As most Georgians, I believe, desire, and support a public education system that serves all children.”