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School superintendent candidates discuss testing, standards at GOP forum

Gene Wallace knows that he cares about education. But with a primary in a month the first step in a process to determine the next state school superintendent, Wallace didn’t know about any of the people on the ballot.

So the Lawrenceville man came out Thursday to a Gwinnett GOP forum where eight of the nine contenders on the Republican ballot talked about their qualifications and ideas.

“It was very helpful,” Wallace said, adding that he still has more research to do before the May 20 election. “I was impressed with two or three of them. I dneed to do a little bit more studying.”

Allen Fort, the superintendent of the Quitman County school system, commended the small crowd for attending the event, but said the room should have been filled for such a key race.

“Every person in this county should be very concerned about this position,” he said, adding that a career that has crossed the state has prepared him for the job.

Fort and Mike Buck, the chief academic officer for the state department of education, said strides have been made in creating new teacher evaluation systems and school report cards.

“I don’t think good teachers are afraid of being held accountable for student achievement,” Buck said, adding that the system does need some revision.

But others were critical of the programs, with professor Mary Kay Bacallao, a member of the Fayette school board, critical of math standards that have taken steps back in recent years. Nancy Jester, a former member of the DeKalb school board, referred to the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index as “byzantine,” and Hall Commissioner Ashley Bell saying the system is too confusing and even deceptive for parents.

“The testing is wrong. What is happening is wrong,” Bacallao said, saying schools are in a “state of emergency.” “We have to stand up.”

Jester said: “The same people who brought you to the place we are can’t get you out of this place. …We have to get serious about how we spend our money.”

Kira Willis, a Fulton County teacher, said she appreciated the new standards and called the index a “far-sight better than No Child Left Behind.” But she said teachers and administrators shouldn’t have to deal with burdensome documentation and testing.

“We don’t need the top-down edicts from people who have never met our children,” she said.

Bell, who chairs a charter school in Hall, described his foundation, which allows community leaders to work with teens who may not graduate and has placed them on the path to success.

“We don’t do enough to help them elevate and graduate,” Bell said. “And we don’t do it by throwing money at the problem. … At the end of the day, someone has to stand in the gap.”

A ninth candidate on the GOP ballot, Richard Woods, did not attend Thursday’s event.

The winner of the May 20 Republican primary will square off in November against the winner of the six-person Democratic primary.