BOE candidates answer questions at IPNA forum – Recap

Last night the Inman Park Neighborhood Association sponsored a forum for BOE candidates. The candidates attending were Brenda Muhammad (I) and Leslie Grant who are running for the District 1 seat and Matt Westmoreland who is running for the District 3 seat and is currently unopposed.

The format was a Q&A with questions submitted by the audience. The following are my notes from the presentation and you can see a full video on YouTube here as provided by East Patch Atlanta .

Opening Statements

Grant – We need new leadership in District 1. The key issue is the selection of a new superintendent – the new superintendent needs to bring cohesiveness to the system. Must have a proven track record.

Muhammad – I am a parent, community leader and community organizer. I have the experience of working on the BOE for 14 years and understand how the system works.

Westmoreland – We need to make the tough decisions in favor of the kids. The wounds from redistricting have not yet healed.

What do you want in a new superintendent?

Muhammad – A transformative leader with vision. Someone who is committed to all children; someone to revive the system – the system is in need of revival.

Westmoreland – A dynamic person who can excite kids, parents and teachers. Someone who understands the tensions that exist between neighborhoods. A leader who is willing to make tough decisions in favor of kids. Someone who will hire great people in C&I and principals for the schools. Someone who can help us bridge the divide between charter and traditional schools.

Grant – The new superintendent needs to make hard decisions and transform the system. Someone that will build the budget from the ground up. Bring cohesiveness to the system and embrace the differences. Must have a proven track record in an urban district.

What excites you about APS?

Westmoreland – Great kids that I see every day as I greet them at Carver. That makes it worth putting up with all the crap that we have to. Want to ensure we focus on the kids and getting them the best education possible.

Grant – We have a chance to rebuild from the ground up – a new BOE and superintendent. The energy of the parents and kids in the system is great.

Muhammad – Great students like Matt Westmoreland. Parents that are engaged. Redistricting energized parents and got them involved.

APS has a $595 million budget. What experience do you have in managing budgets?

Grant – Runs a business and household.  Process is about getting good information and accountability for information provided. The budget process is too quick and rushed. Wants a budget that is well thought out and more directed to the kids. Does not want to spend money on personnel that are not doing their jobs.

Muhammad – Currently runs a non-profit for 24 years and ran a business for over 17 years. Wants to give principals more responsibility for allocating their resources.

Westmoreland – Ran a newspaper in college with 150 employees. He is very frustrated with the budgeting process – need to find ways to fix the process and drive more than 57% of the resources to kids.

How will you represent all the schools in District 1?

Grant – You must know the people you represent.I will be present at all the local meetings throughout my term to get to know you.

Muhammad – Decisions made at the BOE apply to the entire School District. I encourage people to call and email me about specific concerns in District 1.

Do charter schools deprive regular public schools of resources?

Muhammad – Charter schools are not a burden on APS. Too many charter schools would be a problem. Charter schools do address the wants and needs of parents, but we must address the issues so that parents do not want to leave the traditional system.

Westmoreland – Charter schools were created in response to downtown [central office] not listening to parents.

Grant – Charter schools came at a time of need years ago and they began to spring up. We need to improve existing [non-charter] schools so parents and students do not want to leave traditional schools. Need to be more collaborative between charter and non-charters.

What is your opinion on Cluster Charters as recently voted for at the Druid Hills Cluster?

Westmoreland – While I am happy to have the discuss, personally I would not want to move there now.

Grant – We need to understand what makes the system work and then if parents are interested have an open discussion on the issue.

Muhammad – That is a decision that voters need to be involved with and they need to drive the decision.

What is the biggest challenge facing the Grady Cluster?

Grant – Space at Inman and Grady – overcrowding.

Muhammad – We must address the overcrowding at Inman and Grady.

Westmoreland – Schools must improve the education for all students including gifted, average and special needs students.

Should APS reevaluate its contract with Teach for America (TFA)?

Muhammad – The decision to hire TFA teachers is a local decision made by the principal. TFA has played a great role and principals should be able to make that decision.

Westmoreland – Extremely proud to be a TFA alumnus. However, a summer of training at TFA was not enough and had to learn in the classroom. It is a problem that many TFA teachers leave after 2-3 years. However, 50% of [non-TFA] teachers leave after 4-5 years.

Grant – Does not want to single out TFA, but all APS contracts should be reviewed. The 8 TFA teachers at Jackson are doing a great job.

If you had to vote today on an operational model (traditional vs. charter), what would you choose?

Westmoreland – I want to be part of a conversation that provides flexibility to principals.

Grant – Flexibility is important. We should look hard at a charter system, similar to Fulton County.

Muhammad – Supports the traditional school model as long as parents are committed to the schools.

Why is Westmoreland still working for APS as a teacher while running for the BOE?

Westmoreland – I submitted my resignation this past spring. Later my principal approached me and asked me to teach in the fall as there was a need at Carver. We agreed that if I was elected, I would finish up in December. If not elected, I will be happy to continue teaching at Carver.

What do you think of Common Core standards?

Grant – I am glad that there is a standard and embrace the idea. It makes all the sense in the world.

Muhammad – I am excited about Common Core. However, I am concerned that teachers have not been adequately trained to implement it.

Westmoreland – Common Core has set a very high bar as a standard. Concerned that Georgia has pulled out of the standard testing and that Georgia will create its own tests. Wants to make sure we are teaching well and assessing well.

Closing Statements

Westmoreland – It comes down to trust. I will always tell you the truth.

Grant – I feel confident that the conversation will continue. There is a renewed energy to put in place a new Board, a new superintendent and a new operational model.

Muhammad – This is a very important time and an opportunity to select a new leader for APS.

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