Iesha Lyons has always picked her daughter up from school. As she sat in her car one afternoon in August, stuck in a long line outside Howard Middle School, she admitted she might change her stance after the 8th-grader graduates this spring.
“Maybe she will ride the bus when she goes to high school,” Lyons said with a laugh. “That way I can get my day back.”
But Lyons plans to get involved in her daughter’s public school journey in other ways — by lining up at the ballot box on Nov. 7 and voting in Atlanta Board of Education elections, which typically suffer from single-digit turnout.
“I admit I wasn’t always interested in the school board,” Lyons said. “But the older my child gets, the more I realize how important it is to make sure you have a representative who visits the schools in the districts, gets to know their voters, and makes sure they get the necessary resources.”
She hopes that more Black parents like her reach the same realization this year.
Five of the board’s nine seats are up for election: Districts 1,3, and 5, and at-large seats 7 and 9. These elections have extremely low turnout rates but come with high stakes — especially for the district’s more than 35,000 Black students.
Whoever lands on the board has the responsibility of helping lead a predominantly Black school district where nearly half the student body is reading below grade level and Black students face disproportionately high rates of discipline. Black students also contend with inequities in the quality and rigor of classroom instruction, and achievement gaps that can dampen their chances of succeeding when they leave Atlanta Public Schools.
The election also comes as the leadership at APS is already undergoing major changes. In early August, the board voted to hire Danielle Battle as interim superintendent after choosing to end current Superintendent Lisa Herring’s tenure at the end of the month.
Herring, who has been the superintendent since 2020, faced backlash from the community in an online petition that received over 1,300 signatures calling for her removal, citing low ustandardized testing scores and a spike in disciplinary action across the district.
Tyesha Williams, another Howard Middle parent, says the recent news surrounding the superintendent vacancy has piqued her interest into voting in this upcoming election.
“Dr. Herring has only been here every three years, and now she is out the door,” Williams said. “It makes me wonder what other decisions are being made that we aren’t aware of. Now, I want to make sure I’m voting for someone who can make sure my voice is heard at that table.”
Declarations like that are music to Jasmine Banks’ ears.
“When you know who your school board district representative is, you can get things done,” said Banks, a former APS educator who now works with advocacy group Atlanta Thrive. “This relationship between the community and school board is probably one of the few political instances where people directly see the result of their vote.”
When that relationship isn’t healthy, Banks, students are the ones who suffer.
“These are the people who determine how much money is going into your child’s school, who bring those programs and services that low-income families may not be able to afford elsewhere,” Banks said. “That’s why parents need to get out and do the research to know what platforms these people are selling to us before we even go vote.”
Voter outreach and resources
Nov. 7 is Election Day — but that’s not the only important date to remember. The deadline for voter registration is Oct. 10. And early voting runs Oct. 16 through Oct. 28.
While school board elections fly under the radar, there are some helpful resources that can help voters at the polls. The #voteATL collective has a website with important information about school board elections, including important dates to remember and a list of known candidates who have campaign websites.
This interactive tool from the Center for Civic Innovation helps voters figure out the district their neighborhood falls in. Residents can register to vote or check their registration status at the Georgia Secretary of State website. There are also several advocacy groups working on the ground in communities to engage and inform people about school board elections.
Michaela Shelton, voter engagement lead for Equity in Education, told Capital B Atlanta that, without community input, there is no equity in civic processes like school board elections.
“We need community input at every corner, from the search to the next superintendent of APS to the 2023 APS BOE Election,” Shelton said.
And the interest in voting for BOE is there, according to Shelton. She said that about two in three Atlanta voters the organization polled in a 2022 survey “believe public education in the city needs to change.” About 90% of respondents agreed that voting in board elections was important, Shelton said.
The challenge is translating high interest into high turnout for races that come with high stakes but might not command as much attention as more visible elections.
“The goal is bridging the gap between what people know about school boards and our civic duty to act on behalf of the 50,000 kids in APS,” Shelton said.
Dennis Dent, communications director for Redefined Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equity and improvement in schools, said, “It is essential that folks get out and vote.”
“The APS board has an incredibly important role to play in decisions impacting Atlanta’s children. We need to vote like our children’s futures depend on it — because they do,” he said.
Dent says that in elections like BOE — a single-election contest with school board being the only item voters will see on the ballot — turnout rates are typically less than 2%.
One of the ways the group is trying to encourage turnout is by engaging APS parents and educators about the election and working with them to mobilize other potential voters in their school communities.
“Our goal is to ensure that all are registered to vote, and that they have the information they need to make the most educated decision possible,” Dent said.
Lyons, the parent Capital B met outside Howard Middle School, said she’ll be ready when the time comes. And she wants other APS parents to make the leap she took by deciding to vote in her first school board election this year.
“If this is how I can have a say, I’m all for it,” Lyons said. “Because at the end of the day, my child deserves the best education, regardless of where she goes to school.”
Are you an Atlanta Public Schools student? Have some concerns you want potential elected officials to address? We want to hear from you. Email our community engagement reporter, Sydney Sims, at email@example.com with notes and thoughts you have in the weeks leading up to Nov. 7.
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