By Curt Yeomans
The Board of Education District 7 race originally looked like it would be a competition between the current board, and people seeking change among the school system's leaders.
District 7 was one of two board seats, along with District 2, in which an incumbent was going to have to fight off challengers. Incumbent David Ashe was going to face Trinia Garrett and Denese Sampson in the race.
Things changed Wednesday when Ashe filed a letter with the Clayton County Elections Office, announcing his decision to withdraw from the race, and let his district change its representation on the board.
He said he entered the race out of fear that Metro Association of Classroom Educators President John Trotter would produce a candidate who would run for the seat. Ashe said he did not want a Trotter-backed candidate to run unopposed. He said part of his reason to drop out of the race was his belief that both Sampson and Garrett would make good school board members. He will not endorse either candidate, though.
"I'm withdrawing because I don't think I really had a chance to win, and I think my two opponents are good, fine candidates, who have the community's best interests at heart," said Ashe on Wednesday.
"If I stayed in the race, it probably would have led to a runoff, either between myself and one of the ladies running against me, or between those two ladies. It wouldn't have been fair to make them spend extra money to campaign for another few weeks for a run-off election. Now, we will definitely have a winner on July 15."
Ashe said he has not made up his mind about resigning from office before his term expires on Dec. 31. His departure makes the race interesting because at least one candidate, Sampson, qualified for the primary partially because Ashe was seeking re-election. She said she "couldn't let him win this seat by default."
Sampson, 40, wasn't solely motivated by Ashe's early bid for re-election, however. She said she felt "called to do it" and talked about how community members should do something to help boost the area they live in.
"The board needs people who are servants to the community," Sampson said. "The board members are elected to serve the students and the public, not themselves ... Everybody has a responsibility to do something for the community, and I feel this is one way I can give something back to my neighbors."
Despite Ashe's withdrawal from the race, Sampson said she still plans to fight for the District 7 seat. "I want to earn every vote I get," she said. "I don't want people to vote for me just because I'm a black woman, or because I have five children. I want people to meet me, learn about me, my goals and my vision for the school system, and then decide if they want to vote for me."
Sampson said she is the best candidate because she has a passion for serving the people, as well as "sound, decision-making skills," and experience at seeing how elected bodies function as a team.
Sampson's five children all either attend, or have graduated from, Clayton County schools.
She said she is not a member of any teacher's association, and the only groups she and her husband, Kelvin Sampson, are members of are the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) chapters at the schools her children attend, and groups at the church, of which they are members.
Sampson is a legislative assistant for state Sen. Curt Thompson (D-Norcross). She is still listed on the Georgia General Assembly's web site as an assistant for Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) as well, but Sampson said her supervisors assigned a new assistant to Davenport as a precaution.
"There are no legal reasons why I can't be a legislative assistant and hold public office, but because Sen. Davenport represents Clayton County and I might end up on the school board, the Senate did not want there to be any perceived conflict of interest," Sampson said.
Over the last decade, Sampson has worked with several other state senators, including Sens. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) and George Hooks (D-Americus), and former Sen. Nathan Dean. She said her years of working with senators have taught her valuable lessons about building a consensus with others to achieve objectives.
"I've learned when you are a member of a governing body, different people have different backgrounds, different viewpoints, and different ways of doing things," Sampson said. "I learned you can still disagree with someone ,while respecting them and working together to achieve a goal."
Sampson's goal is to see Clayton County schools eventually emerge as one of the top-performing school system's in the state. She said there is already a foundation to build on because the school system has "outstanding students, teachers and administrators."
The biggest piece of Sampson's platform is getting the public to trust the board again. She said it does no good to have public-comment sessions at business meetings, or a proposed separate meeting for public comment, if board members are not going to respond to what the public is saying. She would like to see the board set up a "First Response Committee" to look at the public's concerns and address them within 30 days.
Technology is another area in which Sampson would like to see some improvement. "There are schools where the computer labs don't have enough computers," she said. "In some cases, two or three students are having to share a computer at the same time. We need to invest in enough pieces of technology to make sure our students excel in the classroom."
Sampson is scheduled to be endorsed today by the Metro South Association of Realtors, along with school board candidates Lindsey McDaniel (District 2); Tammie Hardy (District 3); Deverick Williams (District 4); Diana Nicholson (District 5); Glenn Dowell (District 6), and Ed Rigdon (District 8).
Garrett, 35, Sampson's opponent in District 7, is a cosmetologist and the co-founder of Putting the Past Behind Us Wish Foundation, Inc. The Louisiana native established the non-profit foundation with her daughter, Mya Johnson, in 2006 to fulfill wishes for young victims of sexual abuse, because, she said, she and her daughter had experienced abuse themselves and wanted to help others with similar experiences.
"We decided to turn struggle into strength and assist with breaking the cycle of abuse that has been a generational curse for years," states Garrett on the foundation's web site. "We created this organization to provide positive experiences for young victims that would allow them to forgive, recover, heal and move on with their life."
Numerous messages were left on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on Garrett's voice mail for the home phone number provided by the Board of Elections office, but got no response. A phone number for her Putting the Past Behind Us Wish Foundation, Inc., was found on the United Way's web site, but a reporter called the number only to find out it was no longer a functioning phone line.
There was no phone number listed for Garrett or the Putting the Past Behind Us Wish Foundation on its web site.
Her son, Rodriquez Garrett, a student at Babb Middle School, participated in a group project on sexual harassment during the last school year as a member of the school's Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) chapter. He and two of his classmates will take the project to Orlando, Fla., during the week of the July 15 primary, to compete for national honors at the FCCLA National Leadership Meeting.
Trinia Garrett has been endorsed by the Taylor Commission, a group formed by members of the Clayton County Wide Homeowners Association to -- among others functions -- find and train school board candidates.