Q&A with District 8 School Board Candidates

Athens for Everyone sent a questionnaire to both District 8 School Board candidates, John Knox and Kamau Hull. We have published their responses unedited and in-full.


A4E 2016 School Board Questionnaire

Why are you running for school board? What are your qualifications for this office? What ideas are you bringing to the table as a school board candidate?
  • John Knox
    “I want to serve on the Clarke County Board of Education in order to give back to the Clarke County School District (CCSD) that provided 13 years of superb education to our son Evan. I got to know the teachers, staff, and principals at the three schools Evan attended, two of them in District 8, and I admire their efforts. Public education needs support these days; I am ready and willing to step up and serve.

    In addition to 13 years as a CCSD parent, I have lived in District 8 for the past 15 years and I’m invested in the local district. I am an elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church, in the center of District 8, and I have mentored at both Hilsman Middle School and Cedar Shoals High School.

    I am an experienced educator. I have taught at UGA for 15 years, focusing on the large introductory classes that many professors avoid. I’ve taught over 5,000 students so far in my career, and I have spent summers doing workshops for K-12 teachers. I would bring this teaching experience to the board. If elected, I would be the only currently active classroom teacher on the board. This is important, because I am constantly reminded in my day job that the students come first.

    I am also a very experienced board member. I have served on 7 different boards of directors for educational and religious groups for a total of 34 years of board experience. I currently serve as national chair of two such groups. My long experience on boards would translate into effective leadership on this Board.

    As evidence of my efforts in education and on boards, I direct you to the endorsements I have received for my candidacy, at www.knox2016.com/endorsements.html.

    The ideas I would bring to the Board would focus on issues related to:

    -attendance and discipline (see below);
    -the fleshing-out of the just-approved charter school district;
    -the negative impact of the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment;
    -access of CCSD students to higher education; and
    -open, transparent and proactive leadership on the Board.

    These ideas, in turn, would be:

    -making sure that students are in class and that teachers have the support of their principals in maintaining an appropriate climate for learning in their classrooms;
    -promoting the Local School Governance Teams throughout the district so that the charter district plan can function;
    -opposing the takeover of Gaines Elementary by a state “czar” because of an arbitrary definition of “chronically failing” schools;
    -examining in detail the ability of CCSD students to enroll at UGA and other local colleges, including trends in dual enrollment. My initial analysis suggests that CCSD students are becoming scarce on the UGA campus, and I want to look into this more deeply; and
    -promoting a culture on the Board that provides more access and real-time feedback to the public than currently exists in the public-comment time at regular Board meetings. HB 959, passed by the Georgia House and Senate this past March, states (or, it would seem, restates) that any school board member can conduct or attend town hall meetings, and can discuss nonconfidential matters with the public and the media. I have always maintained an open-door, ask-away relationship with my students and I cannot imagine serving on the school board in any way other than the maximum transparency allowable under law.”

  • Kamau Hull
    “I’m running for school board because I want to serve my community—the community where I was born and raised and came to understand the importance of education. This is where my wife and I chose to raise our children, and I want to be a voice for the entire community.

    I bring a wide range of overlapping experience that will be unique to the Clarke County Board of Education. I am uniquely qualified to tap into the needs of our students as an Athens native who graduated from a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence (Cedar Shoals), a community coach for various youth sports, and an invested parent in the Clarke County School District with one son attending a district school and another on the way. I have the experience of serving both our schools and this community. I have served our schools through the Whit Davis School Council and PTO, and as a Trainer/Sponsor for Peer Mediation at Clarke Central High School. I serve our community as a member of the Athens MLK Day Steering Committee, a board member of Chess & Community, and through my involvement with several local churches. As a Child Welfare Attorney in this county’s Juvenile Courts, I have firsthand experience with the legal side of our educational policies and interact frequently with the school district as an advocate for juveniles and parents. Further, as Mediation Trainers, my wife and I have taught, trained, and coached students and professionals about conflict resolution in our firm, high schools, colleges, and law schools for several years.

    My wife and I have so much invested in this district, as do so many other parents. We want to do all we can to see it succeed. As such, bringing this cross-section of experiences to the Board of Education can only help further what I consider to be the two main issues currently facing our district – school discipline and safety, and community engagement. These two issues are not only paramount in the Clarke County School District right now, but also they play a key role in other challenges our district faces – namely a seemingly widening achievement gap, and teacher turnover. I will work vigorously to revisit our school discipline policies and standards, set clear objectives and expectations for our students, and make sure our administrators are empowered to enforce our objectives and standards impartially. I will work to make sure our schools operate as extensions of our community, rather than isolated aspects of our community. I will work to make sure our policies can work hand in hand with our Juvenile Courts to restore juveniles and families, rather than feed into the school-to-prison pipeline. Our schools should be places that foster and establish the respect and appreciation that our teachers need while building the trust between our parents, teachers, administrators, and students. I believe creating this type of environment is the key to closing the achievement gap, and retaining our teachers and administrators.”

  • As you are aware, there was a horrific incident at Cedar Shoals High School earlier this January, and information arose raising questions about whether or not the situation was handled appropriately. What specifically do you see changing in local schools to foster a climate and culture that would prevent an incident like this from occurring in the future? What would you do as a school board member to help facilitate that change?
  • John Knox
    “It was a horrific incident, and many lives have been harmed. When I was deciding to run for the Board, I wanted to emphasize the many positive stories of CCSD and of District 8 in particular. Instead, the past two months has seen a barrage of stories focusing on the worst aspects of both Cedar Shoals and the district. While I continue to emphasize the positives in my campaign blog (see https://blogknox.wordpress.com/), what happened at Cedar Shoals must be understood, investigated, and prevented from happening again.

    The Board makes and enforces policies, as described at https://eboard.eboardsolutions.com/index.aspx?S=4036 (click on “Policies”). The relevant policy here is:

    Policy B. School Board Operations, subheading BBD “Board-School Superintendent Relations”

    “…The Board holds the Superintendent responsible for carrying out its policies within established guidelines and for keeping the Board informed about school operations. In his/her efforts to keep the Board informed, the Superintendent will notify Board members as promptly as possible of any happenings of an emergency nature which occur in schools.”

    During the Jan. 7 incident at Cedar Shoals HS, it is my understanding that at least some Board members were not notified until four weeks later, and through the news media. As this does not satisfy the “as promptly as possible” requirement for “happenings of an emergency nature” (e.g., felonious conduct), there should be a thorough impartial review of why policy was not followed. The Board should now and in the future “[hold] the Superintendent responsible,” as per Board policy, for “keeping the Board informed” in such circumstances.

    Sadly, this incident might have been averted if changes in the leadership at Cedar Shoals had occurred earlier. The new interim principal, Derrick Maxwell, has made what appears to be substantial progress at CSHS in just two months, simply by enforcing student conduct policies that were already on the books and changing the deployment of security personnel on the rather vast Cedar Shoals campus. This suggests that the Board needs to be more careful in scrutinizing and approving the superintendent’s choice of principals. This is, again, fully within the purview of the Board: the superintendent makes recommendations, but the Board makes the ultimate decision and does not have to be a “rubber stamp.” As a Board member, I would be insistent that our most challenged schools get the best principals.

    Finally, as we have seen in the document compiled by nearly fifty Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals teachers and staff, we have a wealth of wisdom, energy, and ideas within our own schools for how best to create a climate and culture of learning that would greatly reduce the chances of similar incidents occurring in the future. See this document at:

    When I serve on boards of directors, I always pay careful attention to what those who are “closest to the action” have to say. CCSD teachers and staff, along with students, likely have the best and most practical ideas for how to create a healthy school climate. We should all be listening to them, and shaping our recommendations around what they say, rather than forcing top-down recommendations on them from above.”

  • Kamau Hull
    “I firmly believe that there needs to be greater emphasis on safety, security, and support in our schools. As I understand it, the Board of Education has plans to address those things in the proposed budget. If elected to the school board, I would want to examine the current policies surrounding class attendance and absences, gain an understanding of where and why those policies are not being followed and direct the superintendent to make sure that our policies are actually enforced.

    In addition, I’m aware that at least one state, California, has adopted a sexual consent curriculum for high schools. I would ask that the school board assess what our current sexual education courses offer in terms of consent, and work to include these issues as a future preventative measure.”

  • What is your position on the governor’s Opportunity School District plan, which will be on the ballot in the November election as a constitutional amendment? If you support the governor’s plan, why? If you are opposed to the governor’s plan, what alternatives do you envision to support and improve our local schools?
  • John Knox
    “I vigorously oppose the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment because it goes against the deeply American idea that our local schools should be governed locally. Our schools are our schools. The OSD constitutional amendment would turn over our schools to a state-level education ‘czar,’ and then in all probability the schools would be turned over to an outside corporation. The amendment is so loosely worded that “chronically failing schools” can be defined however the state wants; perhaps “chronically failing” translates into “chronically poor” or “chronically minority” or even “located in a district that chronically votes against the party in power.” That’s simply bad lawmaking. Based on the experiences of other states where similar initiatives have been implemented, I have no confidence that our schools would improve under this amendment, and great fear that they would suffer. I have 100% confidence, unfortunately, that local citizens would lose their ability to have a say in these outsourced schools. This amendment could well be the beginning of the end for public schools as we know them. My position is simple: Vote no!

    The solution is to ensure that our schools have strong principals who support inspired and inspiring teachers, and to give all of them the time, space, and backing necessary for them to do their jobs well. Nearly any time I hear about a troubled school, the troubles lead directly to the principal. Better leadership, plus enforcement of basic attendance/discipline policies, should improve student achievement. In short, in the words from Apollo 13, “work the problem.” Our nation’s institutions function best when everyone is engaged and doing their jobs, from the top (the Board and superintendent) down (to the students, parents, and the community). I would do my part as a Board member by keeping a very watchful eye on the leadership at CCSD schools.

    But we shouldn’t let the wording of the constitutional amendment subtly persuade us that the schools targeted for takeover by the czar are, in fact, “chronically failing.” As currently defined, “chronically failing” is based on a standardized test that was not intended to be used for these purposes. In the case of Gaines Elementary, the label contradicts what even the State Superintendent of Education thought about Gaines after an on-site visit (see http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2015-02-15/failing-label-gaines-elementary-surprises-clarke-school-officials). So, while I fully agree with supporting and improving CCSD schools, I disagree that we should allow ourselves to be coerced into a discussion of our local schools as viewed through the distorted lens of the “Opportunity” School District amendment proposal.”

  • Kamau Hull
    “I am strongly opposed to the governor’s plan to do what amounts to a state takeover of local schools. The entire proposition is such a moving target so as to make it possible for any school in our state to be deemed a “perpetually failing school”. For any schools that might be considered “perpetually failing”, or close to it, I would want to see for myself what programs, resources, and support the school has by visiting the school and getting to know the students, teachers and administrators. In addition, I would request that the district compile a presentation and report on such schools that show areas that are doing well, as well as areas that need improvement. Some questions that must be addressed for me include: Why are those particular schools considered close to failing or failing? Do those schools have a large special needs student population? What influence could such a population have on why the school considered close to failing or failing? And finally, how do those schools compare to other schools in the district, and what other variables could be at work (be they financial, parental involvement, programs, etc.)?”

  • Some students face difficulties getting access to online materials during non-school hours, particularly necessary wi-fi access for e-textbooks and online school assignments. As a school board member, what would you do to make sure each and every student has access to the tools necessary to be successful in their education?
  • John Knox
    “This isn’t a concern that I have heard during my “listening tour” around the district so far. A problem that I have heard voiced repeatedly is students’ access to smartphones and the Internet on computers during school hours. In short, students are tuned out of their classes, surfing the Internet or engrossed in chat rooms instead of paying attention in class or doing their classwork. So, we are apparently in a paradoxical situation, in which online access provided at schools during school hours is too often abused, but then online access after school hours is literally at a premium, especially for the CCSD students who don’t come from homes with wi-fi.

    This is a problem that’s bigger than the school district, in my opinion. Wi-fi in the U.S. is abysmally slow by international standards, and efforts to create city-wide free wi-fi around the nation seemed to collapse as soon as wealthier people were willing to pay more for faster (but slow, by, say, South Korean measures) wi-fi. The public has managed to opt for one of the worst possible solutions, in which access is private, not public, but we don’t really get what we pay for in terms of speed or ease of use.

    How I would approach this problem:

    -Ascertain how big a problem this is for CCSD students—how many students, how often, at what times of day/night;
    -Map out the areas where CCSD students live who are experiencing this problem (with help from the GIS and cartography experts in my department at UGA);
    -Identify safe public areas near the affected students where wi-fi could be installed; or else nearby private establishments with wi-fi that would be willing to cooperate (e.g., could the Chick-fil-A cow really say ‘no’ to students needing to finish their homework?);
    -Work with Athens-Clarke County, as needed, to provide wi-fi zones for these students

    How I think Athens should approach this problem is a much bigger vision: we should emulate Chattanooga and become a hub of high-speed Internet (see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/technology/fast-internet-service-speeds-business-development-in-chattanooga.html?_r=0 and http://www.thegigtank.com/gig-city), and then provide free public access to it at selected public sites. But that would be well beyond the scope of the Board of Education, and would require vision and initiative at the Mayor/Commission level.”

  • Kamau Hull
    “In order to understand the scope of the problem, the board must understand what areas and what student populations do not have wifi. This can be accomplished through a comprehensive survey to get the most recent and detailed numbers. I am aware that the district currently has plans to invest $50,000 for wifi hotspots to alleviate some of this divide in the proposed budget. I also am aware of a partnership the District recently signed with AT&T to offer families a $10/month internet service, including a wireless router, for those participating in SNAP. Also, as I understand it, many of these resources can be downloaded, while students do have wifi, to work on later. We should make sure students understand when they can use the Internet – before, during and after school – to facilitate having their work when they need it. I would be an advocate for the district holding a forum to inform and train the public on these and other options that may be implemented. I would also advocate for teachers to be creative in considering how a device might be used offline when making assignments, and ask them to design homework that don’t require internet connection. I understand some of this may already be the case, through their use of Google Drives. In addition, the district must look to the community, businesses, and to Athens-Clarke County for help in alleviating this problem, as I do not believe there is an all encompassing solution that can come from the Board of Education alone. I know the District is working with businesses to secure partnerships to offer free wifi, as well.”

  • For more information on the candidates, you can read their answers to a questionnaire published by The League of Women Voters which you can find here.

    Kamau Hull’s campaign website
    John Knox’s campaign website

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