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Bills targeting Gwinnett commission, school board spark accusations of partisan power grabs, racial motivations

Gwinnett County found itself at the center of a political storm steeped in allegations of partisan politics and racism at the state Capitol this past week after the county’s lone Republican senator put forward a pair of bills targeting the county commission and school board.

Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, dropped the Senate Bills 5 EX and 6 EX in the hopper on Monday, and both bills received approval from the Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee this week.

Senate Bill 6 EX has likely the most profound impact. It would expand the county commission from four districts and a chairperson to nine district seats and the chairperson.

Meanwhile, SB 5 EX would convert the school board elections to nonpartisan races and draw new lines for those districts.

“I just feel that effective local governance, as far as with a county the size of Gwinnett, we need more local representation (on the commission),” Dixon told the Daily Post.

State Rep. Gregg Kennard, D-Lawrenceville, described in a different way during a press conference at the State Capitol on Friday, however.

“For 200 years since our county’s origin, we had nothing but white governmental leadership (and) we broke the color barrier in 2018 and really broke it in 2020,” Kennard said. “And, for certain white legislators to now try to reverse those elections is nothing more than — let’s call it what it is — a ‘whitelash.’ It’s ‘whitelash.’

“It’s a white response to those elections that gave us elected officials of color.”

The moves come not only as legislators are dealing with dealing with congressional and legislative redistricting, but also a year after Democrats swept nearly every Republican out of office in the 2020 elections. That election guaranteed an all-Democrat county commission and gave Democrats a 3-2 majority on the county school board.

“In my personal opinion, this is a power grab,” Commissioner Kirkland Carden said. “This is a county represented by five Democrats, no Republicans.

“If you look at the partisan score (for the nine proposed districts), there is the ability that this would create two safe Republican seats (and) one is a potential swing if the election next year goes bad for Democrats.”

Democrats said they were caught off guard by Dixon’s bill since the majority of the delegation, and notably state Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville — the delegation’s chairman — was not made aware that the bills were being worked on.

Park raised concerns that the bills violate Senate rules and Gwinnett delegation bylaws, which require a majority of the delegation back any local legislation, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s proclamation, which stated the redrawing of legislative and congressional maps were the only general legislation that could be considered during the current special session.

“It’s un-democratic and un-American,” Park said on Tuesday.

Republicans back the move, but don’t have support from DemocratsNone of Dixon’s fellow senators from Gwinnett — the other six Senators in the Gwinnett delegation are all Democrats — are backing the bill. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Lee Anderson, a Republican from Columbia County who also chairs the Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee.

Dixon said the proposal is not something that he alone wants to push. He confirmed the plan was something Republicans in Gwinnett’s legislative delegation had worked on.

“I’ve not been working unilaterally — well I guess I have been in the Senate — but I’ve been working very closely with the House Republican Delegation from Gwinnett, especially Chuck Efstration and Bonnie Rich, so it has been a collective effort,” Dixon said.

Four Republicans from Gwinnett’s House Delegation — Efstration, Rich and fellow state Reps. Timothy Barr and Tom Kirby — issued a statement late Tuesday in support of Dixon’s bills.

Efstration has announced plans to carry the bills in the House of Representatives — if the bills get there.

“Senate Bill 5 EX would protect Gwinnett schools from turning into a political playground, and it would ensure that school members can carry out their duties without the distraction of partisan politics,” the quartet said in a joint statement.

“Additionally, we are fully supportive of legislation to increase the number of Gwinnett County commissioners. Gwinnett County’s growth rate over the last 10 years has been incredible, and it shows no signs of stopping. Reducing each commissioner’s district to approximately 100,000 residents would allow our communities to receive better representation by our commissioners.”

Allegations of racial motivations

The 2018 and 2020 election cycles also saw the county commission go from all white to all people of color, with four Black members and one Asian-American member. Those cycles also saw the school board shift from all white to three Black members and two White members.

Opponents have argued the proposed commission maps would create five commission districts and three school board districts where White residents are the largest voting block — in a majority-minority county that is Georgia’s most diverse.

They are raising questions about whether the maps may dilute minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Gwinnett NAACP President Penny Poole said only around 31% of Gwinnettians are white, and that voters made changes in leadership because they wanted to see more a equitable distribution of resources across the county.

“Up until the 2018 elections, the 31% had been dominating the elections,” Poole said. “Now they’re trying to make the school board (nonpartisan), holding elections when people aren’t aware. They are looking to stack districts by drawing lines in their favor.

“Now, this 31% white minority only wants to listen to the people who think like them, but we, the majority of people, must take a stand and make sure voter suppression (and) illegal gerrymandering is exposed as rules and protocols have just been abandoned with this blatant steal.”

Under Senate Bill 6 EX, five new commission districts would be created, bring the board to a total of 10 members, including Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson.

Hendrickson’s power would also be affected because her voting power would be scaled back to only breaking ties.

Park questioned the Republicans motivation behind curtailing the chairwoman’s voting power after Hendrickson was elected. Hendrickson is the first Black chairperson of the county commission.

“I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that (after) Gwinnett elects its first chair who is a woman of color in (202) years, that immediately they try and undermine and dilute her ability to determine the direction of our county,” Park said.

Dixon and other Republican backers of the bill in the Gwinnett delegation have argued that neither bill is motivated by party politics or the rise of people of color to leadership positions in the county.

For his part, Dixon gushed about the job Hendrickson has done as chairwoman.

“There’s no dig at Nicole Love Hendrickson,” he said. “I think she’s doing a great job as our chairwoman. As far as if we go to nine and she’s not a voting member, the whole thought process behind it was creating effective local governance.

“And, by taking it to nine, it would be a little over 100,000 constituents that each district would have and that was the thought process, the driving force behind that.”

Arguments that commission expansion has been considered before

Democrats have pushed to expand the county commission in the past, but not to the extent proposed by Dixon. State Rep. Pedro Marin floated proposals in 2017 to add two more seats to the commission, but that was significantly less of an increase than the pone proposed now.

The delegation’s Democrat members argued multiple times this week, however, that Marin took time to discuss his effort with the rest of the delegation before filing any legislation and planned to get public feedback before pushing for a vote.

“To say that Pedro wanted to expand the board, therefore this justifies (SB 6EX), while completely ignoring the fact that Pedro was transparent, forthright and had a public engagement plan is (expletive),” Carden said.

Dixon said he would like to increase the school board as well but there are additional hurdles to increasing that board.

“We can’t do that without a referendum,” Dixon said. “You have to have a referendum and a vote and, if that was approved, then we could take that up eventually.”

State law also caps the allowed size of school boards at seven members, with the only exceptions being grandfathered boards that were larger than that number before the cap was put in place.

“But, I think with the school board, I just think we’ve got to take politics out of the school board,” Dixon said. “It’s running rampant in my opinion. I’ve tried to address the board, and they’ve cut me off mid-speech and they’ll give my Democratic colleagues three to four times the allotted time to finish up.”

Some Democrats in the Gwinnett delegation have given presentations, outside of the public comment, to the school board. Meanwhile, Dixon — as well as some of the other Democrats in the delegation — have opted to address the board during the public comment period, where all comments have a three-minute cap.

Waiting to see what happens next

The bills are currently in a holding pattern in the Senate. The school board bill passed out of the SLGO committee on Wednesday, but the Senate Rules Committee — a powerful committee which has the final say on which bills reach the full Senate floor — did not take it up when it met on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the bill dealing with the county committee passed out of the SLGO committee on Thursday. The Rules committee could have taken up the bills together on Friday, but instead cancelled its meeting for that day.

It’s unclear what will happen when the Senate reconvenes, starting on Monday.

“We haven’t heard anything yet,” said Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, at a press conference on Friday afternoon. “We know what you know: they did not come up in Rules yesterday and they did not come up in Rules today. We’ll see what happens ...

“I’m not sure about the schedule for Monday, but they haven’t come up yet and that’s as far as we know right now.”

During the press conference, Park added, “Until this special session is over, these bills are very much alive, so I think that’s all the more reason us to remain vigilant, to bring as much public scrutiny to this as possible and ensure that the people have an opportunity to meaningly engage in the redistricting process before we enter into the 2022 regular session.”

And, then there is the legal question: If the legislature passes the bills and Gov. Brian Kemp signs them into law, could lawsuits be filed to stop them from going into effect.

At least one group, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, could end up bringing a legal challenge.

“I can say from a nonprofit standpoint, as The People’s Agenda, we would be looking at whether it comports to the legalities once it’s finalized as a bill,” said Helen Butler, the group’s executive director. “We would bring a legal challenge should that be necessary.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools names six Teacher of the Year finalists

Gwinnett County Public Schools announced its six finalists for the Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year recognition on Thursday.

The finalists are: Arcado Elementary School first-grade teacher Jamie Garcia Caycho, Puckett’s Mill Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Kelly Powell, Berkmar Middle School orchestra teacher Taniesha Pooser, North Gwinnett Middle School media specialist Jenny Stark, Archer High School ninth-grade algebra teacher Lee Allen and Brookwood High School math teacher Erin Thompson.

The school system selected the finalists from a field of 139 local school teachers of the year. The field was narrowed down to 25 semifinalists before the finalists were chosen from that group. A committee that included former teachers of the year, local school administrators and central office staff will chose a district-wide teacher of the year from the field of finalists.

The teacher of the year will be named during a virtual celebration that will be held on Dec. 7.

Gwinnett Superintendent Calvin Watts, parents and other community members push back against nonpartisan school board proposal

The move to make Gwinnett County school board elections nonpartisan and redraw map for the board’s districts without consulting Gwinnett County Public Schools or its school board has drawn a rebuke from GCPS Superintendent Calvin Watts and a letter-writing campaign from parents.

Senate Bill 5EX was approved by the Georgia Senate’s State and Local Government Operations Committee on Wednesday and it is awaiting placement by the Rules Committee on the full Senate’s voting agenda, something that is generally more of a formality than anything else.

“Gwinnett County Public Schools has serious concerns about the manner in which Senate Bill 5EX was introduced, the lack of input by the Gwinnett Legislative Delegation and affected Board members, the confusion the proposal would raise for voters and the impact this proposed legislation would have on the district,” Watts said in a statement on Friday.

“We urge lawmakers to allow our duly elected Board members the opportunity to work within the established process to recommend new Board maps that fairly and appropriately reallocate residents, based on the 2020 Census.”

Gwinnett County parents and other community members, including at least one pastor, pushed back on Friday and Saturday, drafting a form email letter to send senators and members of the media. The Daily Post had been copied on 19 emails containing the letter by Saturday morning.

The letter points out that Dixon, who has cited constituents concerns as the basis for his bill, lives in the Buford area. Buford has its own municipal school system and school board that is separate from Gwinnett County Public Schools and its school board.

“(Eighty-six percent) of the voices, represented by six senators, five school board members, and 13 House representatives have been nullified,” the letter states. “Senator Clint Dixon and all those supporting this bill made a decision to not include my voice, by not including my senator, school board member, nor House representative, when drafting and submitting these bills.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools said on Friday that its officials have still not received a formal copy of the district map, and its supporting data, from the bill’s backers. The district said its own analysis of what data it could obtain show about 280,000 Gwinnettians would be moved to a new school board district under the proposal.

The district’s own analysis of data from the 2020 Census — which is the data redistricting is supposed to be based upon — showed the number of Gwinnettians who actually have to be moved based on population changes is between 15,000 and 20,000 people.

“We hope that the matter of redistricting Gwinnett County Board of Education districts may be deferred until the General Assembly meets in January, and that when it does occur, it is based on a process that is fair and inclusive,” Watts said.

Additionally, district officials said two board members were drawn into the same board district while also renaming districts — something district officials warned will cause confusion among residents.

The current District 4 would become the proposed District 2 while the current District 5 becomes the proposed District 3; the current District 3 would become District 4; and the current District 2 would become the proposed District 5.

The proposed District 2, which is largely similar to the district Chairman Everton Blair Jr. currently represents, would not be represented by any of the current board members under the proposal. Meanwhile, the proposed District 3, which is largely made from the district board member Tarece Johnson represents, would be home to two current board members.

“These bills are an attempt to marginalize the leadership and the voices of people of color currently leading Gwinnett County,” said Johnson, referring to both the bill concerning the school board and another one aimed at expanding the county commission, during a press conference on Friday.

Dixon said he heard from constituents in his Senate district who wanted changes made to the school board after the board voted to terminate former Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ contract 11 months early. He said he does not plan to stop at making the school board elections nonpartisan, however.

“Another one of my legislative priorities this next session is banning (Critical Race Theory) statewide,” Dixon said. “We’re vetting several bills and just protecting our children from potential indoctrination.”

School board members have repeatedly asserted that Critical Race Theory is not taught in Gwinnett County Public Schools.