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Diversity, ethics, openness big issues in BOE District 4 race

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Diversity, adequate facilities, and the ongoing accreditation crisis are some of the issues facing Clayton County, according to the men seeking to fill the Board of Education's District 4 post.

Michael King, Milton Mack and Deverick Williams are the three candidates offering for the vacant school board seat in a July 15 special election.

Ericka Davis, former board chair, left the post in April amid public demands for resignations from the entire board. She had served half of a four-year term.

The candidates talked to the Clayton News Daily about putting a new face on the board, and working in the best interests of the children and teachers.

"The negative publicity this county receives has given us a black eye," said Williams, a maintenance planner for Atlantic Southeast Airlines. "We need people who genuinely care about the children and are willing to help them."

Williams grew up in Forest Park, playing forward for Forest Park High School's basketball team in the mid-1980s, and currently serves on his city's Architectural Design Review Board. He paints himself as the "grassroots candidate," who is paying for his campaign out of his own pocket.

Mack, a retired Army officer, also is a resident of Forest Park. He lost a race against Davis in 2006. He has spent the last 15 years working in education, which included stints as an administrator in Twiggs County schools. He works for Atlanta Public Schools as a teacher, but declined to identify at which school he works.

His children are graduates of Clayton schools, and he said he has grandchildren in the school district.

King is an attorney from College Park, who has been practicing law in Jonesboro for 18 years. He made an unsuccessful bid in the county's district attorney's race in 2004. He sponsors a Legal Spelling Bee every year to get elementary and middle school-aged children interested in the law.

His son, Michael, Jr., is a graduate of Clayton County schools. In the mid-1990s, Michael King, Jr., and his father were charged with making terroristic threats, but the elder King said it was "politically motivated ... "

"My son was attending North Clayton High School, and the administrators didn't like me," King said. "I had appeared at the school a few times, and they had me arrested. Those charges were dropped."

Mack said he is the best candidate, because he has experience in the education field. He said teachers are the ideal school board members, because they work with children. "You don't have enough teachers on the school board," Mack said. "You need people on the board who understand what goes on in a classroom."

King also comes into the race with some educational experience. He said he received bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education from Florida State University in 1976, and 1979, respectively. He has taught at the elementary, secondary and college levels in both Florida and Georgia for more than a decade, before receiving his law degree from the Atlanta Law School in 1990.

King said he didn't plan to seek public office again after his loss in the district attorney's race, but the accreditation issue is the only reason he is running. He said the hiring of Corrective Superintendent John Thompson -- when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' (SACS) mandated the hiring of a permanent school chief -- was the action which finally pushed him to run for office.

"I think we can save it [the accreditation]," King said. "The threat is definitely there, but if we can get the right people in office, then I think we'll be OK."

King also said it is unlikely he would run for re-election after serving out the remaining two years of Davis' unfinished term -- If the accreditation is saved by then.

Williams, however, said the board's hiring of Thompson was a sign that the school system's governing body is starting to take the SACS mandates seriously. He said he would make the best candidate because he grew up in the district, attended District 4 schools, and "knows the people in the community."

He said the educational welfare of the children of Clayton County needs to be the top priority of every school board member, because "they deserve the same opportunities I had when I was their age ... There shouldn't be stumbling blocks in their way because of something a bunch of adults did," he added.

Asked if he had ties to any teachers associations, such as the Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE), the Clayton County Education Association (CCEA) or the groups' individual leaders, he replied "I don't even know who those people are ...

"I dance to my own tune," Williams added. "I'm not aligned with anyone."

Mack refused to answer the question, and asked, "What does that have to do with running for the school board?" Then, he said, "No group gives me any money."

King said he was a member of the National Education Association (NEA) and the Georgia Teachers Association 20 years ago, but his memberships lapsed years ago.

The candidates agreed one of the critical issues facing District 4 is a growing amount of diversity. With 60 percent of Forest Park High School's student population listed by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement as "Black," 20 percent listed as "Hispanic," nine percent listed as "Asian," and another nine percent listed as "White," it is the county's most ethnically diverse high school.

All three of the candidates said people from culturally diverse backgrounds should be welcomed with open arms. Mack pointed to the Unidos Dual Language Charter School in Forest Park as an example of something the school system got right in addressing diversity. The school teaches children in both Spanish and English, to increase their fluency in both languages.

"I think it's a good place to start to get children used to speaking in both languages," Mack said. He added he would like to see teachers and administrators receive sensitivity training, so they would know how to handle various cultural beliefs. He said Hispanics and Asians should be welcome at the table, because "they are taxpayers, too."

King said the school system should make sure minority students, such as Hispanics and Asians, have the resources needed to succeed academically.

Williams said he supports diversity in the school system because it will help the students later on in life, when they are dealing with other people. "Diversity makes your background stronger," he said.

Mack and King also said improving facilities and increasing parental involvement are areas in need of improvement. Mack said several school buildings in the district are old, and could use some renovations. "I'm sure they've been renovated before, but they are in need of repair," he said.

King said student achievement can be improved if more parents are encouraged to be active participants in the education of their children, both in, and out of the school buildings.

All of the candidates said they believe there should be a high level of openness and transparency when it comes to the board's actions, and all said they oppose the board holding closed meetings. "If you're going to get the public more involved in the school system, you have to be open with the people," King said.

Mack said transparency begins not only with the board, but with the superintendent. He was critical of the freedoms granted to Corrective Superintendent Thompson, including the ability to make some decisions without board approval. Mack pointed to the withholding of diplomas from graduating seniors, because the former superintendent's name and signature were on them, as an example of the board needing to watch Thompson more closely.

"He wouldn't have been able to pull that stunt, if I was on the board," Mack said. "He should have told the board what he was going to do before he did it."

Williams said it is crucial the board is open with the public, if it wants to regain the public's trust. He said everyone has "to be doing the right thing ... As a board member, you have got to be open with the public. You have to be genuine, and you can't have anything to hide."