The four candidates vying for two seats on the DeKalb School Board in the May 22 nonpartisan elections are in agreement about improving pay and benefits for teachers and support staff.

Diijon “Twin” DaCosta and Lance Lawyer Hammonds are vying for the open District 6 seat in Stone Mountain, which is being vacated by former School Board chair Melvin Johnson.

Marshall Orson, the incumbent in District 2, is being challenged by parent and attorney Candice McKinley. District 2 covers areas including Fernbank, North Druid Hills and Tucker.

DaCosta, who is running for his first elected office, is a graduate of the district and was one its teachers up until he quit in March to run for the school board. He is also the founder of an education-based nonprofit, DeKalb Kids Project Inc.

Hammonds, a sales manager, is a 33-year DeKalb resident. He is a life member of the DeKalb NAACP and former chair of its education committee. His community service also includes stints with the DeKalb County PTA Council, the DeKalb United Negro College Fund, and the DeKalb Public Safety and Judicial Facilities Authority.

He was a candidate for DeKalb Commission District 4 in 2015.

Orson, a consultant and an attorney, is a 32-year DeKalb resident with children in the district. He has been on the Board of Education for five years, and currently serves as the board’s vice chairman.  

McKinley, who is a North Druid Hills attorney, has degrees in psychology and law, and teaching certification from Georgia State. She has taught in Atlanta Public Schools.

Answering questions at the CrossRoadsNews Candidate Forum on May 7 at First Afrikan Church in Lithonia, the political hopefuls said the board needs to better allocate resources to ensure that the best staff are retained to improve students’ performance.

McKinley, DaCosta and Hammonds said the school district can do better for its staff, given that more than 400 of its bus drivers participated in a three-day sickout in April, causing up to 90-minute delays getting students to and from school.

Hundreds of students were absent from classes, tests had to be rescheduled, and the school district had to bring in outside help.

School Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green fired seven bus drivers for promoting the sickout.

McKinley said she was surprised the pay and benefits dispute got to that point.

“I just can’t believe that we were not able to work with our transportation specialists to get what they need,” McKinley said at the May 7 forum. “I believe in people’s rights. We should treat them fairly and give them the appropriate wages, and I would be proactive to bring everybody to the table and find a solution before we get to this point again.”

DaCosta said his daughter could have been one of the students left waiting more than an hour at a bus stop during the sickout.

“We have to use this as an example to reach out to all of our employees to give them higher wages so they can take care of our kids,” he said. “Our kids are number one; everything else comes after that.”

Hammonds said he met with the seven fired bus drivers to hear about their needs and concerns.

“I want everybody to have a livable wage,” he said. “We need to pay top dollar in our district so we can attract the best teachers.”

Orson says he supports the existing district-wide compensation study that’s due to be completed this semester and that the school board’s goal is to ensure that all employees are paid a competitive wage and benefits.

“Above all else, we must always ensure our children are safe and secure and our bus drivers are the frontline in this effort,” he said May 9. “We can never compromise on this responsibility.”

Orson said he is proud to have helped guide the “turnaround” of the school district and that he is committed to equitable investment.

“During my time on the board we have been fully accredited, established a $120 million surplus, re-instituted pay raises and eliminated furlough days, and achieved rising test scores and an increased graduation rate,” he said. “We are reforming our educational structure by designing and implementing a 21st century curriculum which will ensure all students have a common educational basis for their classes, we are providing wrap-around services at schools that need additional support, and we are using positive behavioral approaches coupled with restorative justice practices to address inequities in discipline.”

But McKinley said her children were shocked at inequities they saw when they enrolled in public schools near Stonecrest, prompting the family’s relocation to North Druid Hills.

“We had to move, and I hate to say that, but there is an equity problem in DeKalb when it comes to our schools,” she said. “It has been that way for a long time, and never should we have to rely on our ZIP code to secure an equity seat or have access to quality education in our schools.”

DaCosta, who attended Redan High School, said his public education in DeKalb did not adequately prepare him for college.

“I had to go right back down to the remedial classes because of not being prepared,” he said. “Our children need resources and highly qualified teachers.”

A graduate of Kennesaw State University, DaCosta worked with the DCSD for five years, first as a high school science teacher and for the last two years in human resources.

Hammonds said he wants DeKalb to be the school system of choice for quality education, and that can be achieved by attracting and retaining the best teachers and staff in the community, properly using resources, and connecting the board with teachers and parents.

“I grew up in the inner city where crime, drugs and violence were a daily part of life and education has been a key for me,” he said.

Orson said the DCSD faces significant challenges, including the diversion of resources to Atlanta as a result of annexations, which he has tried to fight.

“This challenge likely will continue from both Atlanta and Decatur, as sadly, some people support diverting public monies to private schools through vouchers and tax credits,” he said. “I will fight to ensure monies remain with our local public schools where most of our children are taught.”

Early voting is underway through May 18. On election day, the polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.