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Q&A on District 3 Candidate for Gwinnett County School Board

An important election November 6 for District 3 School Board. I sent 8 key questions to both candidates. Unfortunately, Mary Kay Murphy declined to respond. Jen Falk did.

An important local election on November 6 is for District 3 (Peachtree Corners) School Board where incumbent Mary Kay Murphy is being challenged by Jen Falk. As a researcher, I customarily survey residents for their opinions on candidates; this time I have done a 'reverse survey" where I have surveyed the candidates for their opinions on the issues and am reporting to residents.

 I prepared eight key questions and sent them to both candidates. Unfortuantely for the voters, Mary Kay Murphy declined to respond or answer any of the questions, but Jen Falk did reply. Here are her unedited answers: her visions for Gwinnett County Public Schools, her stated reasons to vote for her and comments on current and past Gwinnett County Public School leadership and operations.

  1. What is your strategic vision for Gwinnett County Public Schools?


 Gwinnett County students should have a range of meaningful options to develop their abilities.  I want to provide choices that suit their talents and needs and create an engaging environment that gives children a lifelong love of learning. I’ll ensure taxpayer dollars are properly invested in our classrooms.

 "World Class” will be clearly defined. We will set high, but realistic goals for each school and for students, continuously monitor our progress and allow flexibility in their pursuit. First and foremost, my vision includes accountability. When a third of our students are not graduating on time we need accountability-- not excuses.

 2.  Are there lessons to be learned from other counties? For example, our graduation rate is 68% compared to Fulton County's 70%.

Yes, I’ll always be proactive and seek proven models and techniques to improve education in Gwinnett County.  We lag behind Fulton’s graduation rate and, while some members of Gwinnett’s School Board are congratulating themselves for beating state averages, Fulton is busy raising the bar again. The Fulton County Superintendent has stated a goal for all schools to have a 90 percent graduation rate. This is the kind of educational leadership a community can rally around.

3. Why should you be elected/re-elected instead of your opponent?

 For too long, the same unresponsive politicians have missed opportunities to improve our children’s education. Their mistakes have hurt taxpayers, too. We need some changes. Tough decisions have to be made in a down economy and the Board needs new, ethical, accountable leadership, that isn’t afraid to speak up.

I am not a career politician and I never thought I’d run for office. I’m a concerned parent who has stayed involved and paid attention to the issues affecting our children’s education. We deserve better. Our kids deserve better. Parents deserve to be heard and have your opinions represented by an accountable, engaged representative who listens.

  4.Do you think the School Board should be a partisan or non-partisan election?

 Non-partisan.  Our children’s future is too important to play partisan games.

 During this campaign, I have visited with hundreds of parents and, the more I listen, the more I learn. Most of us, regardless of party, share the same concerns and have the same issues with our current representation on the school board.

5. Gwinnett County averages $578 per full time equivalent in administrative expenses, while the state average is $450. Please comment on these differences and what if anything should be done about this difference.

 This is what is commonly called big government at the local level. Gwinnett’s general administration expenses are 30% higher than the state average of $450.56.  If Gwinnett County brought its general administration expenses down to the state average, it could have saved as much as $20 million or more, enabling the retention of some 300 teaching positions. Georgia House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones reached the same conclusion.

 6.What can be done to keep class sizes from increasing?

 Whether we are in good economic times or bad, the school board should be a good steward of every tax dollar. The purpose of the public school system is to educate our children. Every dollar spent should track back to that goal. Central office spending should be closely scrutinized. We should look for innovative educational models rather than real estate expansion when the county has thousands of vacant seats in existing schools. Chamber of Commerce staff should be paid for out of the Chamber’s budget.

7. Should Gwinnett County Public Schools continue to fund the salaries of two economic development employees of the Chamber of Commerce? Why do you feel that way?

 No. And what’s worse is that Board members won’t answer questions about its value to the school system. So, not just no, but why are the board members responsible for this decision still here if they can’t address how this affects student learning? How can something like this happen without a board vote? You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that those one million dollars would have been better spent on education. Taxpayers and parents are owed some answers.

 8. Do you support, or oppose, an upcoming constitutional amendment to allow the state to establish charter schools in Gwinnett County? Why do you feel that way?

I support the constitutional amendment and the enabling funding legislation. This legislation does not siphon money from our local district schools. In fact, just the opposite occurs. No local property taxes are touched. No matter how many times it is said otherwise, it’s simply not true.  

When a petition is denied at the local board level, I believe it is important that the petitioner have a right of appeal. A school board in touch with the will of its constituents and responsive to their needs needn’t worry about the community’s ability to appeal its decisions. Our board has spent millions of dollars to oppose this loss of power. If through a rigorous vetting a petition is successfully appealed then the students should be funded as equitably as possible.  

After due diligence, I may agree with my colleagues not to support an individual charter school petition presented to our board. However, if we voted to reject a petition, I would welcome a second set of eyes. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amanda Helmstetter September 19, 2012 at 12:12 AM
Very insightful and thoughtful responses from Jen Falk. The fact that there was no response at all from the incumbent is more than discouraging - it is ALARMING!
Sherilu September 19, 2012 at 02:44 PM
I will vote for Ms. Falk, but I completely disagree with her on the Charter School amendment to our state constitution. The passage of this amendment (which is financially supported by large private "school management" businesses) will open wide the door for the privatization of our schools. I am concerned that someone serving on the school board would support handing over their authority to a committee of a few at the state level. The state already has the authority to intervene in a failing school system. Having said that I will vote for Ms. Falk in part because Ms. Murphy is completely unacceptable. Ms. Falk knows the problems with our schools and has concrete ideas to improve them for all of our students. Members of the school board are limited in what they can do, but one thing they can do is replace our superintendent.
Jane Hendrix September 19, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Thanks to Jim Nelems for presenting this opportunity to the District 3 School Board Candidates. It is disturbing that the incumbant, Mary Kay Murphy, chose to ignore the survey. Jen Falk answered each question thoughtfully and thoroughly. She will be accessible and accountable to the citizens of District 3 and Gwinnett County. It is way past time to vote out the career politicians who care so little for their constituents that they blow off relevant questions and concerns. Jen Falk has my support!
Sabrina Smith September 20, 2012 at 06:29 PM
It is important for school board members to be accessible and responsive to constituents. Mary Kay Murphy has still not explained why GCPS pays the salaries of Gwinnett Chamber employees while furloughing teachers, and she has not explained the basis for their claim that paying the salaries resulted in $6 million being put directly into GCPS classrooms. Why would anyone vote for a school board member running for reelection unless they can explain why hundreds of thousands of dollars meant for educating students was instead given to the Gwinnett Chamber?
PTC Concerns September 20, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Ever heard of the phrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned"?
John Cook September 27, 2012 at 04:43 AM
Jim, I'm wondering why question 7 was not the first question. Violation of public trust by the School Board and Wilbanks is absolutely irresponsible and unforgivable. If the School Board wants to increase revenue to the School System, they should look for methods of improving the education and scores of clusters such as Meadow Creek, Berkmar, Shiloh, and others. A real-estate agent told me not to buy a home in those school clusters because of the schools. Improving the results would result in desirability of the property, higher property values, and thus higher school taxes from those clusters. Then the school system would have the revenue that they covet, and it would be attained within the scope of their actual duties and job descriptions. What a novel concept!
John Cook September 28, 2012 at 10:31 PM
Two of the three schools in this article are below average. http://lilburn.patch.com/articles/parkview-third-among-gwinnett-cluster-high-schools-in-sat-scores?ncid=newsltuspatc00000001 These are not the students that dropped out. Taking the SAT usually indicates a desire for college. It's sad that some students are merely written off and dismissed. What is the plan to get these students' education up to par? Such scores are addressed with the attitude that "it is what it is," which is unacceptable.

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