With the DeKalb County Board of Education District 1 seat election around the corner, one candidate is focused on accountability and another is focused on interpersonal relationships with other board members in the district.
The Dunwoody Homeowners Association on March 29 held a virtual forum for the District 1 election, which is scheduled for May 19. The District 1 seat includes voters from Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville.
Adrienne Duncan, president of the association, moderated the forum with the two candidates, Andrew Ziffer and Anna Hill. The full forum can be viewed on the association’s website, here.
“I have watched the challenges our school system faces and I want to make a bigger impact on our students,” Ziffer said. “I am not a career politician. I am simply a dad trying to make a difference in our schools.”
“I’m a mom, I’m a CPA, I’m a taxpayer, [and] my son does not go to DeKalb County schools anymore,” Hill said. “I have every reason in the world to not continue with this, but I cannot as a human being and as a professional in a financially-based field, disregard the problems anymore. It is my social responsibility to do this.”
Questions were collected over the last few weeks from the public via an online forum and topics were culled from the questions. The questions were then condensed into topics relevant to the office and were kept private from the candidates, Duncan said.
“We made every effort to include ideas from all cities in [District] 1 and to explore all the different needs in the system,” Duncan said.
Ziffer, who volunteers with several local school groups, has been a resident of Dunwoody for 13 years and before that, he lived in Chamblee for 12 years.
Hill is a CPA and has lived in Dunwoody for seven years. Before that, she lived in Chamblee for 13 years.
Each candidate started with a two-minute opening statement and was then asked the same question and given two minutes to respond. No time extensions were granted. Each candidate then closed with a two-minute statement.
The first question asked the candidates to name three goals that they would like to achieve in their first 180 days in office.
“Goal number one is accountability,” Hill said. “I want to make sure that there is an accountability to the community in order to understand, first of all, why the financials have been late for multiple years and second of all, what the county is planning to do about that going forward.”
Hill said she hears a lot of complaints from parents about transparency and she wants to close the gap between the board and the community.
“They either feel like they weren’t given the complete truth or they don’t know what’s going on,” Hill said. “I’m not suggesting the truth hasn’t been given but there has been a disconnect between us as a taxpayer and what the board has actually been doing.”
Ziffer said he wants to focus on getting a list of priorities for the region as well as the district as a whole.
“The only way I’m going to be successful is if I understand what’s going on in my district as well as everyone else’s district,” Ziffer said.
Ziffer said he wants to schedule listening meetings at every school in District 1 in his first 60 days and from there put together the top issues that have been discussed to develop a plan to address the issues and partner with other board members to make it happen.
“At the end of the day, we need to make sure we are serving students,” Ziffer said. “Period, the end.”
The second question asked how the candidates would manage a difference of opinion with other board members and how to persuade them to vote for measures that benefit District 1 schools.
Ziffer said it is important to collaborate with other board members to be able to come to solutions.
“You have to understand what’s going on everywhere not just locally, it’s important to understand everybody’s perspective,” Ziffer said. “Everybody should be able to negotiate and to talk to each other and to discuss rational, logical solutions to problems in DeKalb regardless to where it is.”
Hill spoke to her experience with litigation services and working with white-collar crime matters.
“It’s really about listening,” Hill said. “It’s not about listening so you can prepare an answer. It’s about listening so you can hear what they’re saying. A lot of times people just want to be heard.”
The third question asked candidates what they thought of DeKalb’s current plan of teaching online during a public emergency.
“Everyone has to figure out how to make it work, but for some kids it’s easier and for other kids it’s not,” Hill said. “We take this as an opportunity to learn from the students that struggled or from the students that are really exceeding. How can we apply that so the learning is better suited?”
“DeKalb County administrators have gone through a huge transformation in how they teach and out of necessity,” Ziffer said. “We are going through an accidental and a purposeful transformation of making online education work.”
The next question asked what would be the candidate’s ideal 1 year and 5 year plan for relieving overcrowding in high schools.
“We needed to build yesterday,” Ziffer said. “We do not solve overcrowding by moving kids from their local schools to one farther away. We solve overcrowding by building capacity where it’s needed.”
Ziffer said some potential short term solutions would be using the Georgia State Perimeter campus to move Dunwoody High School’s 11th and 12th graders and some teachers; encouraging dual enrollment; and updating the old Austin Elementary site to move students there.
“None of these solutions are perfect,” Ziffer said. “We need short term solutions and long term solutions and with short term solutions, we really need to focus on what solution is better than a trailer.”
Hill agreed that trailers are not the solution to the problem of overcrowding and the district needs to get their financials accurately assessed.
“When you’re looking at overcrowding you cannot alleviate it by putting in more and more trailers and that’s what the district has done,” Hill said. “The reason they have done that is they do not have timely and accurate financials. They do not have the financial information to make appropriate decisions and you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Hill said the Comprehensive Master Plan should help the district in creating accountability for the issue of overcrowding.
“That’s why the Comprehensive Master Plan is so important, but more importantly so that there’s accountability,” Hill said. “I want to know what’s gonna be done, when, by whom, and be able to account on that.”
The next question asked if the candidates think the district has a revenue problem or a spending problem.
“It’s both, but the biggest problem is not the revenue,” Hill said. “Almost 75% of what we pay [in taxes] goes to the schools. The school has enough money. The problem is what it’s spent on.”
“We need to hire people who know how to manage money, people who know how to run a business that has effective administration and eliminates waste,” Ziffer said. “Where is the fat inside of DeKalb and what can be cut?”
The candidates were then asked if they support a requirement for a playground at every elementary school.
“Yes, elementary school kids need activity,” Ziffer said. “As much as we want kids to have an education, we need to make sure they actually have physical activity.”
“Of course they should,” Hill said. “The idea that every school has a playground that’s fair and equal for all the kids is really important.”
The candidates were asked if they would support a decision they are not in favor of or that does not benefit schools in District 1.
“I think you do have to consider as a board member you’re collaborating with others,” Hill said. “I will never make a decision that is inappropriate, unethical or financially irresponsible.”
“If the answer is that something is being taken away from one school and given to another, I hope that that would never actually come to the board and if it does that would be a dysfunction of the board because there always has to be some give and take and some balance on serving all of our districts,” Ziffer said.
The final question asked what would be the top improvement the candidates would advocate for in the special education program.
“The biggest need right now seems to be teachers,” Ziffer said. “When you don’t have enough teachers you cannot be successful.”
Ziffer said the district is looking at job sharing opportunities by bringing back retired special education teachers, which he supports.
“It’s not perfect and we need to do better,” Ziffer said. “We need to focus on having qualified teachers in the classrooms.”
Hill spoke on her experience with having a son who graduated from Chamblee Charter High School who was in individualized education plan classes.
“I do agree that we have a shortage of teachers but it’s so much more than that,” Hill said.
Hill said her son could not participate in small group testing because there were not enough classrooms.
“It’s not just the teachers,” Hill said. “It’s giving them the tools they need.”