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Two Black Democrats Beat Republican Incumbents to Transform a Suburban School Board

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[Story updated on Nov. 4 to reflect latest election totals]

Two Black women on Tuesday night won seats in a hotly contested school board election in Gwinnett County, Ga., ousting long-serving white Republican incumbents in a suburban area whose racial demographics have diversified rapidly in recent years.

Karen Watkins and Tarece Johnson will join current board members Everton Blair Jr., a Black Democrat elected just two years ago; Steven Knudsen, a white Republican—also elected in 2018; and Mary Kay Murphy, who won re-election Tuesday night. The board will shift from a 4-1 white Republican majority to a 3-2 Black Democratic majority.

Watkins, a Black and Filipina Democrat in her mid-40s, ousted Carole Boyce, a 70-year-old white Republican who has served on the board since 2004. 

Murphy, an 82-year-old white Republican who has served on the board since 1996, secured just shy of 51 percent of the vote to fend off challenger Tanisha Banks, a 48-year-old Black Democrat with a criminal justice degree who has been a teacher in the school district.

Johnson's victory Tuesday was assured after she won 67 percent of the vote in a primary this June against Louise Radloff, who has served on the board since 1973, three years before Johnson was born.

The results mean that the Democratic challengers fell just shy of a sweep that would have solidified their majority and mirrored the rapidly evolving demographics of their jurisdiction. In 2000, 64 percent of the district's roughly 11,000 students were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Less than two decades later, white students represent only 22 percent of the student population, which now numbers approximately 180,000. Students of color now make up the majority—32 percent of all Gwinnett County students are Black, 31 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are Asian.

The race unfolded against the chaotic backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide protests over systemic injustice, and a heated presidential contest between two candidates with starkly different visions for the prospects of suburbs like Gwinnett County. The county has been among the areas with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the country, and its schools were forced back into fully remote learning last week after Hurricane Zeta brought down trees and power lines.

Nationwide debates over reopening school buildings and examining the role of police officers in schools played out in contentious fashion in the county, where Black families have long lamented inadequacies of public schools in their neighborhoods. The Democratic candidates emphasized the disproportionately high rates of punishment and low rates of academic achievement for the district's students of color, while the incumbents pointed to their decades of experience running the school system, which has had a good reputation and earned accolades for overall achievement.

During the presidential campaign, President Donald Trump repeatedly invoked the racist fear that affluent white suburbs will be upended by the arrival of people of color and poor residents. Joe Biden's campaign, meanwhile, has pledged to build more affordable housing in suburbs and curb discriminatory housing practices. Biden's vice-presidential running mate Kamala Harris visited Gwinnett County for a drive-in rally this weekend.

Some observers had speculated that a majority-Democratic board might seek to replace the district's superintendent, J. Alvin Wilbanks, when his current contract expires in 2022. Wilbanks is one of the nation's highest-paid school district leaders, with an annual salary of more than $530,000. He has led the district since 1996.

For more on the history of Gwinnett County and its residents' relationship with public schools, read this article from EdWeek's Ben Herold.

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith for Education Week

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