September 16, per the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Democratic contenders for the Gwinnett County Board of Education did not participate in the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum Tuesday night, leaving only the incumbent Republicans and a write-in candidate to answer the organization’s questions.
Karen Watkins, who is running for District 1, and Tanisha Banks, candidate for District 3, were previously listed as participating, but were removed from the lineup Monday. The chamber said Watkins and Banks declined to participate. Watkins did not respond to a request for comment as to why she did not take part in the forum as originally announced.
Tarece Johnson, the Democrat running in District 5, was never billed as a participant in the event. She defeated longtime board member Louise Radloff in the May primary and has no official Republican opponent. Write-in candidate George Puicar began his campaign for District 5 in late August and has been endorsed by the Gwinnett County Republican Party.
Watkins, Banks and Johnson did participate in the chamber’s forums during the primary. Video from those events is available on the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce YouTube channel.
Puicar and incumbent Republican board members Carol Boyce, of District 1, and Mary Kay Murphy, of District 3, did take part in the Tuesday evening forum, discussing issues including how to better retain and attract quality teachers and how to prepare students to enter the workforce. The candidates all spoke in the Gwinnett Chamber offices, maintaining social distance, while the forum was broadcast via Zoom.
Boyce, in her fifteenth year on the board, praised the district’s progress in her tenure and said keeping her and Murphy in their seats was key to continued success.
“Gwinnett County Public Schools needs to continue on the path that it is,” Boyce said. “We do not need change. We have a very successful school system, and I want to make sure that we have innovations on the way, and that we continue to provide the very best education we can for all of our students.”
All three praised the technical and career-focused programs in the county’s schools already, citing them as strong options for students who aren’t seeking a four-year college education. Parents and school counselors should help students decide between paths including technical education, career skill development and more traditional curricula, Puicar said.
“Finding the best path for each student is key,” he said.
Creating paths for teachers to carve out careers in Gwinnett is also key for the district’s success, said Murphy, a former teacher herself. Making programs including loan forgiveness and job shadowing available could improve the district’s ability to recruit teachers in metro Atlanta, she said, and more opportunities for teachers to apply for grants could help them grow while remaining in Gwinnett.
While Democratic candidates Banks and Watkins were not at the Tuesday forum, they did participate in one held Monday by the League of Women Voters and Gwinnett SToPP, a parent group dedicating to ending the school-to-prison pipeline that is believed to begin with harsh discipline in public schools. Both advocated for more counselors and mental health professionals in schools, and fewer school resource officers. Boyce and Murphy praised the work of Gwinnett’s school resource officers, saying they make students safer and set a good example for children.
“They help bring a sense of community policing within the schools,” Boyce said Monday.
Banks, a teacher at one of Gwinnett’s intervention schools for students with disciplinary issues, said she sees firsthand that officers are needed in schools, but that they are not the only solution.
“SROs are an asset in the schools, however, not 96 of them,” Banks said. “If you compare — do you know how many social workers we have? We have 21 social workers over 144 schools. We need to do better.”
Banks and Watkins also called for more transparency in the board’s actions and criticized the district for requiring formal public records requests for some data instead of listing it online. Boyce countered by offering her personal phone number to anyone who wanted to call with questions.
Watkins said the district’s inconsistency in its reopening plans — they changed three times over the summer — illustrates poor planning and opacity in decision-making.
“The school system should be accountable and have to answer to the community,” Watkins said.