A pair of controversial bills that would have expanded the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and changed the way the county’s school board is elected have been put on ice until at least 2022.
State Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, went to the full Senate on Tuesday and had the bills sent back to the chamber’s State and Local Government Operations Committee. Dixon indicated Senate Bill 5EX, the bill that would make Gwinnett school board election nonpartisan elections held in May, could be retooled to target school boards across Georgia.
“I’ve come to realize ... there’s a bigger issue than just Gwinnett County in regards to nonpartisan school boards,” Dixon said during a press conference in Atlanta. “Currently, 61% of the school districts in the state of Georgia are nonpartisan and my intent is to spend the next six weeks hearing from parents, educators and children across the state as we examine nonpartisan boards of education.
“The education of our children is a nonpartisan issue. Let’s get politics out of our schools and once again focus on educating our children.”
The issues behind SB 5EX as well as Senate Bill 6 EX — which is the bill to expand the Gwinnett County commission from four districts and chairperson to nine districts and a chairperson — are expected to now be taken up during the 2022 regular legislative session. Even though the issues are not dead, the recommitment of the bills to the SLGO committee constitutes a victory for opponents of both bills.
“We want to commend Sen. Dixon for recognizing the importance of input from the Board of Commissioners and our residents,” Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said.
“Because of support from our Gwinnett delegation and grassroots efforts by our community members, SB 6EX will go through the legislative process it deserves. We look forward to working with our House and Senate delegation in the future to come up with a transparent and reasonable solution that will allow our valued community members and hardworking Gwinnett County employees to thrive.”
Democrats in the Gwinnett legislative delegation, the heads of local community groups and parents and educators had put pressure on leaders in the Senate, as well as Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, to stop the bills from becoming law.
“Honestly, I think it was the outrage this caused with Gwinnett voters,” said state Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, about why he believed the bills were pulled back. “I have received, over the past few days, hundreds of emails (from people) who, once were aware of what was going on, sent very strongly worded emails that said they were egregious and appalled by the actions of a few elected officials who were not representative of the entire county as a whole.”
One issue they raised was that the bills violated Senate rules, by not getting a majority of support from the Gwinnett delegation, as well as going against Gov. Brian Kemp’s proclamation convening the General Assembly’s special session by pushing bills that did not deal with legislative or congressional redistricting or local emergencies. Another issue that was raised was the fact that public input was not solicited, and the school board and county commission were not consulted, before the bills were filed.
Dixon pushed back against assertions by Democrats that the expansion of the county commission was a partisan power grabby the GOP, or motivated by racial issues, and claimed that he had been the victim of “cancel culture” by opponents of his bills.
“Their trying to claim it’s a power grab by the GOP and has something to do with race is simply ridiculous and false,” he said. “The attacks against me is nothing more than the same cancel culture that is sweeping across this country.
“The truth is simple: expanding the Board of Commissioners will allow better and more efficient local governance so that all Gwinnett residents voices are heard.”
It is not immediately clear how many public hearings will be held on making school boards nonpartisan. Dixon told the Daily Post after his press conference there will be at least two — one in Gwinnett and one at the state Capitol — and others would be held elsewhere in the state based on interest and where the school board elections are partisan or nonpartisan.
He also plans to participate in public input open houses hosted by commissioners on commission redistricting, although he will miss one planned for Wednesday in Duluth. Park said the delegation plans to hold public input meetings on the bills as well.
In Gwinnett, Republicans were caught off guard by former school board member Louise Radloff’s loss in the 2020 Democratic Party primary to Tarece Johnson. No Republican had qualified to run for the seat, and as the GOP began rallying around a write-in candidate, the Conservative Republican Women of North Atlanta sent out an email to members which said, “We did not run a Republican/Independent against Louise in the primary since she often sides with us on crucial issues.”
Had the election been nonpartisan, Republicans would have been able to cast ballots in the contest between Radloff and Johnson.
State Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, said Gwinnett’s school board should not be singled out to be converted to nonpartisan elections.
“I’m not going to support a local bill that makes the Gwinnett board of Education nonpartisan (if) we don’t do it (across) the whole state of Georgia,” McClain said.
Nonpartisan school board elections is not the only education-related issue Dixon plans to tackle in 2022. He has already announced plans to introduce a bill that would ban the teaching of critical race theory in Georgia schools.
Gwinnett County Public Schools officials have repeatedly denied that critical race theory, also called CRT for short, is being taught in the county’s schools. Parents affiliated with a conservative leaning group called “No Left Turn” have argued it is being taught in the schools.
“While D.C. politicians and radical agendas try to invade the classroom with CRT, comprehensive sex ed and other radical curriculum trying to indoctrinate our children, my focus will be on ensuring students catch up ... post-COVID pandemic,” Dixon said.
He later added, “I care about nonpartisan school boards because students should be the focus, not partisan politics.”
Officials from Gwinnett County Public Schools, the city of Lawrenceville and the Aurora Theatre gathered at Central Gwinnett High School on Sunday to celebrate art.
Or rather, they celebrated the teaching of art.
GCPS, the city and the Aurora held a dedication celebration for the new School of the Arts at Central Gwinnett. The school system, city and theater partnered to establish the school, which provides professional-level arts training to to Gwinnett students. The school-within-a-school opened this fall.
Gwinnett County hit an important milestone in the fight against COVID-19 last week: Its two-week new case ratio dropped below 100 residents per 100,000 residents for the first time since the beginning of the Delta variant wave in late July.
Gwinnett dropped below the 100 cases per 100,000 residents two-week threshold on Nov. 8 and, with the exception of being exactly 100 cases per 100,000 residents on Nov. 9, the county has stayed below the threshold every other weekday of the last week.
The two-week numbers for Saturday and Sunday are not yet available from the Georgia Department of Public Health, but the ratio on Monday was 91 new COVID cases for every 100,000 Gwinnettians over the preceding two weeks.
Gwinnett’s two-week ratio on Monday was the fourth-highest in the 11-county Atlanta Regional Commission footprint. Only Forsyth (124 cases per 100,000 residents), Cobb (107 cases per 100,000 residents) and Cherokee (93 cases per 100,000 residents) had higher ratios among the 11 counties.
Prior to last week, the last time Gwinnett was below 100 cases per 100,000 residents was July 25.
Gwinnett still has a little way to go before it gets as low as it was in early July, when new cases were well below 50 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, however.
In all, Gwinnett saw a total of 885 new cases reported during the two-week period leading up to Monday.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Georgia in March 2020, Gwinnett has had 113,102 reported COVID cases, 1,396 confirmed deaths, 95 probable deaths and 6,312 hospitalizations. Its overall case ratio for the entire pandemic, so far, is 11,646.25 cases for every 100,000 residents.
The state also reported that 54% of Gwinnettians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 59% of the county’s residents have received at least one shot of a vaccine.
Georgia, as a whole, has had 1.27 million reported cases, 25,362 confirmed deaths, 4,509 probable deaths, 878,040 hospitalizations and 13,756 ICU admissions since the pandemic reached the state.
Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said she wanted her first county budget proposal since taking office to address an array of community needs ranging from human services, to transit expansion, increased public safety and better access to elections materials.
Hendrickson’s $2.06 billion proposed 2022 county budget was unveiled to her fellow commissioners on Tuesday. Among the items in the budget is the addition of 151 employees, with 30 of them being new police officer positions, as well as more than $2 million for transit expansion and a 4% pay-for-performance salary increase for county employees on their work anniversary dates.
“I wanted to make sure with this budget that we were really addressing the community’s priorities,” Hendrickson said. “This budget really takes steps to address a lot of the community needs, such as the expansion of human services, such as addressing our issues around poverty, addressing language equity in our elections process.
“And, in spirit of reprioritizing our efforts to focus on some of those issues, we’re still able to propose a fiscally sound and balanced budget without having to raise taxes. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of our staff and I’m proud of our citizens who gave input in that process.”
The proposed budget is expected to be posted online for public inspection at gwinnettcounty.com, and a public hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 6 at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. It is the largest budget in the county’s history and follows a trend of gradually increasing budgets that began under former commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash.
County officials said anticipated revenues in 2022 are expected to be up by 10.9%, but the proposed expenditures are expected to grow by only 7.8% from this year.
Some of the big items in the proposed budget are the transit expansion and elections materials being offered in more languages as well as more staff in multiple departments.
In the area of transit, Gwinnett Financial Services Director Buffy Alexzulian told commissioners the budget includes more than $2 million that will be part of a multi-year expansion of Gwinnett County Transit’s services. The expansion includes new transit routes, including microtransit.
“After three years, this expansion will increase local bus service by 58%, commuter bus service by 20% and paratransit services by 40%,” Alexzulian said.
The budget presentation did not include a list of of specific routes, but officials from the county’s transportation department told a budget review committee earlier this year that they wanted to add five routes providing local bus services in areas such as Snellville, Buford and Suwanee.
The request also includes microtransit in Snellville.
In terms of additional languages for elections materials, the county already provides materials in Spanish under the federal mandate, but Hendrickson said officials are looking at offering the materials in four Asian languages as well.
“We’re going to be benchmarking this off of the top languages that are spoken in the county, and that’s based off of our Census numbers,” Hendrickson said. “Spanish is a language that’s already required. We also looking at adding Korean, Vietnamese and two dialects of Chinese, which include Mandarin and Cantonese.
“We chose those languages because it mirror what the population is, what the minority populations that are here in Gwinnett County (are).”
Alexzulian said the county will also add eight employees in the Elections Division to help with voting related demands, particularly in a year when Georgia’s gubernatorial race and what is expected to be a hotly contested U.S. Senate race will be at the top of the ballot.
The 30 police officer positions continues a multi-year trend of Gwinnett expanding its police force to meet growing demands from an increasing population.
“With a continued increase in the Gwinnett County population, these positions will ensure that the county provides a high level of customer service and responsiveness to its citizens,” Alexzulian said.
The police will also be creating a program in partnership with Viewpoint Health to addresses mental health crises. The program will see pairings of officers and mental health professionals, with one pair for each of Gwinnett’s six precincts.
Many more employees will added elsewhere in the county government, although Alexzulian said many departments are getting less than a handful of new employees.
A total of 15 new employees are proposed for water and sewer-related positions, and there are six new code enforcement positions, mainly tied to commercial code enforcement, five information technology positions and seven health and human services-related positions.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office is getting five positions as well to handle deputy recruit training. There is funding for two new fire inspectors and two additional attorneys in the county’s law department too.