They are educators, school administrators, former teachers, parents and former school board members. They hail from Tifton and Valdosta, Gainesville, Rome and several points in between.
If there’s anything that’s noteworthy about the race to be the next State School Superintendent, it’s the sheer number of candidates. Fifteen.
Nine Republicans and six Democrats are competing to replace incumbent John Barge, who is running for governor. The winners of the May 20 primaries will face off on the general election ballot in November.
Stephen Dolinger, President of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, an independent non-partisan and nonprofit organization, said the number of candidates speaks to Barge’s early announcement to run for governor, and that there wasn’t an heir apparent in line to take over.
“It’s really difficult for a typical voter in Georgia to know these people,” Dolinger said. “The challenge for most of them is to establish name recogniation and separate themsevles from the pack.”
The open seat also caused an influx of candidates, said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. And because education topics have been in the news for several years, and become increasingly controversial and political, many candidates feel like they can make a difference.
The icy relationship between Barge and Gov. Nathan Deal could have a lasting effect on Barge’s successor, Callahan said.
Deal has already recruited superintendents from Rabun County and Forsyth County to work for him.
“The governor will be somewhat skeptical of who’s in there,” Callahan said. “The governor will want to bring more power to his side of the street and less with who gets the job.”
The winning candidates are likely to be people who demonstrate an ability to work with the governor and members of the General Assembly and run the Department of Education.
“(Voters) want someone who understands the challenges and issues, what makes a good state,” Dolinger said. “Someone who’s credible and can be a leader of a large organization with a lot of employees and a big budget.”
On the Republican side, the candidates are Mary Kay Bacallao, a college professor and Fayette County School Board candidate in 2010 and 2012; Ashley Bell, a former Hall County Commissioner and former charter school system chairman; Mike Buck, chief of staff to Barge; Sharyl Dawes, a businesswoman and a legislative liasion for the Parent Teacher Association; Allen Bowles Fort, Superintendent of Quitman County Schools; Nancy Jester, former DeKalb County School Board member and an actuarial consultant; Fitz Johnson, a defense contractor, retired Army officer, business owner and community activist; Kira Willis, a Roswell teacher and 2010 Libertarian nominee for school superintendent; Richard Woods, retired school administrator, former teacher and 2010 candidate.
The Democrats are Tarnisha Dent, a teacher; Denise Freeman, a former Lincoln School Board member and educator; Jurita Mays; Alisha Morgan, a state representative and businesswoman; Rita Robinzine, a teacher and Democratic activist; and Valarie Wilson, a former Decatur School Board chairman and nonprofit group executive
The winning candidate will be someone who voters believe has educational experience that’s necessary, or someone who has the experience to run the DOE like a business, Callahan said.
With 120,000 teachers in the state, Callahan said the teacher vote is important, and those teachers are interested in how the winning candidate would deal with the nearly $8 billion in cuts to K-12 education in the last decade, and the perceived over-emphasis of testing and standardized test results with the new teacher evaluation system.
“The new evaluation format coming on and growing poverty levels is very challenging, and given the cut in resources makes it doubly challenging,” Callahan said.