CL's picks for Atlanta Public Schools 

Elect a mix of old and new to steer the city's problem-plagued school system to greatness

If you haven't paid attention to the contentious politics surrounding Atlanta Public Schools, now's the time. The nearly 50,000-student system with a more than $600 million budget is trying to recover from a widespread cheating scandal that attracted national attention. Its nine-member board next year will choose a new superintendent. And, oh yeah, the graduation rate hovers just above 50 percent, nearly 30 points below the national average. All incumbents except Byron Amos are either stepping down or fighting for re-election, so it's worth learning about the races. As is normal during school board election season, candidates are mostly delivering feel-good claptrap and not many specifics. There does seem to be an overwhelming desire for reform — which can mean many different things — and to trim overhead at the APS Central Office, which the AJC reported pays more than $1,600 per student on administration salaries, the highest in the state. Each candidate has pros and cons — if you suspect that Teach for America is a Trojan horse for charter school takeovers, you've got four alums of the program to watch out for on the ballot! — and each deserves consideration. Contact them, grill 'em, and make them earn your vote.

District 1

Includes: Old Fourth Ward, Grant Park, and Benteen Park

Our pick: Leslie Grant

Brenda Muhammad has served APS longer than most students have been alive. First elected in 1997, she certainly possesses the institutional knowledge for the gig. But we've heard from some neighborhood residents that the Woodland Hills resident is somewhat disengaged at the ground level. Given the major changes headed for APS in the coming months, opponent Leslie Grant could become an important voice in transforming the public school system. The Grant Park mother and former film location scout now runs a company focused on teaching children about healthy eating. She wants more active representation from board members, supports charter schools (but doesn't think they're a panacea), and wants greater accountability from APS leaders. Grant was involved with setting up the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School and is an active parent advocate. She could bring some much-needed energy to the southeast Atlanta district. www.electlesliegrant.com.

District 4

Includes: Buckhead, Chastain Park

Our pick: Nancy Meister

Nancy Meister, a real estate broker who upset two-term board member Mark Riley in 2009, joined the board at the outset of the cheating scandal. Once at APS, she became one of the gang of five that pushed for more transparency. Her sole opponent, Taryn Bowman, a former film production executive, now wants to unseat her and rep the district that covers much of Buckhead — and is home to the grossly overbudget $147 million North Atlanta High School. Bowman's enthusiasm on the campaign trail has surprised some voters, and we respect her unwavering stance on not approving for-profit charter schools. But Meister's aware of the issues, realistic, and could bring some stability to the board. She knows the ins and outs of the system, has been a longtime engaged parent of APS students and, as such, is well regarded among many fellow parents in the district. www.nancydistrict4.com.

District 5

Includes: West Atlanta

Our pick: Mary Louise Palmer

The race to replace outgoing incumbent LaChandra Butler Burks, one of indicted Superintendent Beverly Hall's biggest supporters, has enough challengers to fill a clown car. Nearly all the candidates speak the right lines. While we like Raynard Johnson's engagement and genuine concern for the community, Mary Louise Palmer stands out as the most qualified, having chaired her NPU education committee, served as an officer on the Atlanta Council of PTAs, among other things, and is worthy of serving on the board. The IT professional and longtime volunteer is the mother of three APS graduates and would help keep the focus on supporting neighborhood schools. Real estate broker Charles Lawrence and community activist Steven Lee are also running. www.marypalmerforschools.com.

District 6

Includes: Sylvan Hills, Adair Park, Cascade

Our pick: Eshé Collins

The crowded pack looking to replace Yolanda Johnson and represent a large swath of south Atlanta has one clear choice: Eshé Collins. The former educator — she's one of the Teach for America alums — and law school graduate works on helping boost preschoolers' literacy skills as the director of an educational nonprofit based at Georgia State University. That experience could bring some understanding and creativity to the board. In addition, she favors cutting the Central Office's bloated budget — and, she tells us, making sure the improving the quality of traditional schools APS' top priority. Other challengers include Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, Anne Wofford McKenzie, and Dell Byrd. www.collinsforkids.com.

At-Large Seat 7

Citywide

Our pick: Courtney English

Courtney English has a fight on his hands against Nisha Simama, a well-qualified, intelligent former educator who was appointed to the school board during APS's 2011 accreditation scare. Her responses to our questions were refreshing: When asked about school safety, she noted that connecting students with opportunities to help them avoid crime should be explored, rather than simply installing armed guards. But English has an edge by coming armed with more facts, details, and ideas. The 28-year-old former teacher and current educational consultant, who's also the board's youngest member, pushed for more transparency during the cheating scandal, is responsive, and impressed us on the campaign trail. Though we're wary of too many consultants on the board and aware of his past ethical disputes, we lean toward English. www.courtneyenglish.com.

At-Large Seat 8

Citywide

Our pick: Tom Tidwell and Reuben McDaniel

Current APS board chairman Reuben McDaniel, who irked Buckhead residents for his role in a change of leadership at North Atlanta High School, faces stiff — and very talented — competition for his citywide post. Challengers include developer and former APS board member Mark Riley, attorney Tom Tidwell, APS parent activist and attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown, and resident City Hall rabble-rouser Dave Walker. Given the number of candidates in this very hard-to-call race, we'd be surprised if a runoff wasn't in the cards. Opt for McDaniel because he's smart, engaging, and, as an at-large candidate should, has looked out for schools across the city. Or press the screen for Tidwell. The energetic political newcomer and current APS parent's enthusiasm, hardcore campaigning, knowledge about the races, and focus on improving early education are commendable. www.reubenmcdaniel.com. www.electtidwell.com.

At-Large Seat 9

Citywide

Our pick: Jason Esteves

Attorney Jason Esteves and former APS administrator Lori James have emerged as the two strongest contenders, which also include insurance agent Eddie Lee Brewster, business consultant Edward Johnson and nonprofit director Sean Norman, for the only open citywide board position. Both talk a good game about placing more resources in the classroom. But Esteves has doubled down on the importance of hiring a visionary superintendent and doesn't have the same ties to the system as James, who worked in APS' special needs program for more than 20 years. Esteves is a big-picture candidate — he understands the negative impact empty schools have on neighborhoods — and is worthy of a seat on the board. www.jasonesteves.com.

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