Brenda J. Muhammad, District 1 representative on the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education, is seeking re-election for the seat.
But the Woodland Hills resident, first elected to the board in 1997, said if she retains the seat, that that will be her final term on the school board.
Muhammad, who is program director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Crime Commission's Victim-Witness Assistance Program and founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons MOMS Inc. goes up against Leslie Grant of Grant Park, who has already announced her candidacy.
Muhammad sat down with East Atlanta Patch recently to discuss the issues and her priorities for the upcoming term. These are excerpts from that interview:
Q. Why are you seeking re-election?
A. I’m running to continue the work that we have begun, some of the work that has been in my bucket for quite some time. When I first ran there was some things there was a strategic plan, developed with the community to address education in our district and many of those things have been accomplished but there are still some very serious things that need to be done and I’m running to try to get those completed over this next term.
Q. What are the top three things on that bucket list?
A. The first is to have a full commitment around the IB program at Maynard Jackson, the second is to have discussion and commitment about having IB in all of the schools that feed into the cluster. The other is to look at alternative educational opportunities in the district for those young people who are not going to college.
Q. Are you talking about vocational-technical schools?
A. That's a possibility, but I think we need to have dialogue around that. It may be that we have it in a regular school environment, where you could have dual track. You could probably have IB and a program for those kids who are not going to go to IB. I don't know, but I'd like to have some community input about what that should look like. I'd like them to be jobs ready. We have so many opportunities to bring jobs here but we don't have the folk who are skilled and ready. We have so many folk that graduate from our schools that are not going to college, but they're not job ready either. So what can we do to help fill that gap?
Q. Under the newly redrawn district maps, District 1 acquires some new neighborhoods including Candler Park and portions of Midtown. How are you going to let them know about who you are and why they should vote for you?
A. Well, I'm going to let them know about some of the accomplishments that have occurred throughout the district over the period of time that I've served and I also want to let them know that I represent the whole district and I want to try to educate them again on what our role is as school board members so they won't have great expectations that are not real and can't be realized and old me accoutnable for something tat I dont have control over. I want them to know about my experience in serving on this board and how important it is to maintain some of that history right now. This is a very critical time for the district. Right now we've got to finish up Maynard Jackson, we've got to get this portion of the district academically on track so that people are comfortable about all of the schools in the district so that we can close that gap between our charter schools and the traditional schools
Q. In several neighborhoods of district, there was anger in how the redistricting went and whether or not you were for closing some of the schools in the district or advocating to keep them open. Can you explain where you stood on the schools in District 1 that were threatened with closure? Did you feel some of them should have closed?
A. Most of them stayed open. We had one school that closed and that was Cook. And there has been announced by the superintendent a need for the use of that facility and we had enough elementary schools around that were not to capacity that we could take a number of children that were there and fill some of the other seats in the other schools. So we were not drastically impacted in our district with school closures — quite surprisingly actually. There were some recommendations for some closures and I think the advocacy that we provided to keep those open was beneficial and it seemed to be what the communities wanted, especially in many of the schools that were recommended [for closure]. Now, there has been some discussion and great interest in D.H. Stanton, which was recommended to be closed at the last minute. The community had not had an opportunity to have any input. They were not aware that the school was going to be recommended to be closed. Everybody got the information during Spring Break and so they couldn’t put a plan together, or appeal, which was outlined as part of the closure process. So yes, I did interject when the recommendation was made with regard to D.H. Stanton being closed at the last minute so that the community could have an opportunity to voice their concerns or recommendations about what could be done with the school and why should not be closed.
Q. All the board members will say they’re elected by a district, but that they have to represent the interests of all the children in APS. But I’ve heard from parents from a few neighborhoods in District 1 who say they feel you don’t represent their interests as well as board members from other districts represent the communities that elected them. How do you respond?
A. If there are individuals who are saying that I don’t represent their interests or that I don’t represent the interests of the district as well as another board member may represent their district, I don’t know. I can’t speak to what I can’t compare. I don’t know what the allegation is. What is it that I have not done?
Q. They feel that other board members get more of they want for their districts than in District 1.
A. I think it’s probably more of a perception than the reality because if you look at the district, No. 1 we’ve had a new school built – Carver was absolutely horrible. We have a wonderful facility over there now. We have great leadership. It’s not just about buildings it's what goes on in those buildings as well. We’ve had more capital dollars to come into our district than almost any other district. We still have the still fairy new school, Parkside Elementary, and it took us nearly four or five years to get that. Some people just don’t understand the process. And that’s one of the things that I hope this campaign will do — enlighten and re-inform constituents about our role and responsibility. We are one of nine. We are like a pie and we are one piece of the pie. We are a board but we are a public board, where no one person can make a decision. Those decisions are made collectively and the decisions that we make are really based on recommendations that come from the administration. The administration has the responsibility for advising us on what needs to be done for this system. It is not the role of a board representative to run the day-to-day operations of the school system. We are a governing board. All we do is vote on policy. The one thing that we have more latitude with than anything is the hiring of the superintendent, who has that responsibility.
Q. The choice of the next superintendent is going to be the big issue for the incoming board. As a board member, what are the qualifications that you're looking for in a superintendent?
A. The characteristics that I'm looking for are based on several factors. It is those other things on my bucket list that I'm trying to get accomplished, where he or she stands with regard to those issues and is he or she supportive of those. The other is the strategic plan that the district has identified or supported and others in the public have supported and how he or she can address those or the vision or plan for doing that. And the third is what I'm able to collect over the next few months from my constituents as to 'where do you want to see the system go?' 'What are some of the things you want to see us accomplish in the next four years?' It's a combination of things that I will be looking at. I can tell you immediately that I'm looking for someone who is open, transparent and welcoming, not only to the business community, but also the constituents, the taxpayers, as well as the people who work for the system — many of the characteristics that the current superintendent possesses. I'm also looking for a superintendent who is open and committed to implementing new ideas.
Q. Given the issues that the board had with SACS, what do you say to voters who would say, 'you were part of that board, so why should I vote for you again in 2013?'
A. Yes, I was a part of that board and while it was the worst experience that I have had, academically, it was probably the best also because there were issues that needed to be addressed, that for far too long, many thought or were in denial that they were happening. And while being a part of that board, I just happened to be one of four who saw these discrepancies and stood up for wanting to make sure that they were unveiled and that we addressed anything that was either wrong or not wrong. We wanted an in-depth investigation of the allegations. It was brought to the light and there so many children who were affected and the impact that this had on many of our schools has been — at least the beginning of it — has been addressed and we hope that it's not happening any longer.
Q. I was specifically speaking to how SACS said the board members related with one another.
A. I think SACS said that because we were different. There were board members who said there was no wrongdoing. There were board members who said, 'well, if there was not, then open it up.' And so there was that debate back and forth. There was distrust because some people were aligned along with the administration. That's not to say that others were not supportive of the administration. There were others who said, 'well, if there's nothing wrong, do what we need to do.' And so it was that constant back and forth that gave the perception that board members couldn't get along. I think there was some distrust because some board members thought other board members probably knew more and knew it sooner than others, that there were some things that were not happening correctly and so it created that tension among the board members.
A. I've been supportive of the superintendent from the very beginning. The night of the final vote, there was all of the debate back and forth. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that there were some things that were not clearly defined with renewing a contract. We had agreed upon one year. I had a conversation with the superintendent and he explained that what he needed to do, it would take about 18 months. So I offered that early on in the meeting. There seemed to be some other personal, political agenda going on. Then we had a motion put out by our vice chair, which sounded like my motion but I wasn't sure because somebody asked a question, and I don't think we got an explanation or an answer and so somewhere in between this dialogue going back and forth I raised my hand and asked a question, he [the board chairman] called the vote, they voted and I held back because I wanted the opportunity to get clarification. Our counsel didn't answer my question. They went on and I came back hoping or thinking that once I got clarity on what I needed to get clarity on, we could open that back up and I could have an opportunity to vote and then I asked that question and I was told that the vote had already been taken. So I said want the minutes to reflect that I am in support of Mr. Amos' motion. It was not — absolutely, emphatically — that I did not support the superintendent. I have no problems with the superintendent, but I do believe that this board needs to be serious about finding a permanent superintendent.
Q. There's been some argument specifically about Southeast Atlanta having too many charter schools and the impact that has on enrollments at traditional public schools at the elementary school level as well as money. What do you say to that?
A. That may be, I don't know that for a fact, but that's a question the administration needs to address and it has been asked. If we have them and we have too many, why do we have to many? What is not going on in our traditional public schools and that environment that's going on in the charters? And what makes those charters more attractive than the traditional schools that are there? I think those are serious questions that we need to ask. Do we say that there are too many? One would say that there may not be enough. And some may same some chose to not go to the traditional public school for whatever reason or reasons. So that has to be clearly identified and that has not. I can tell you that when the [Atlanta] Neighborhood Charter School organized to begin that school, and I worked very actively with them to get the Neighborhood Charter School established and to get the board to support it, it was not popular. I understood at the time why they were doing it, because they didn't have a lot of choices and we were not having the kind of success that most parents would have wanted and would have expected for their children.