The Times is presenting candidates’ positions on local issues in print editions ahead of Election Day on Nov. 8. Early voting begins Oct. 17. For more coverage, visit gainesvilletimes.com/election2022.
What to know about this race: Republican Debra Smith will face off against Democrat Angela Middleton for the vacant post 1 seat on Hall County’s school board. The seat was left open by Sam Chapman, who spent nearly 15 years on the board and decided not to run for reelection. The post 1 seat represents the eastern part of the county but is elected at large.
Meet the candidates
djunct professor of education leadership at University of North Georgia; former principal and teacher in Hall for 38 years.
Political experience: None
Family: Married with two children, graduates of East Hall High, and six grandchildren, four in Hall schools
Occupation: Retired educator and basketball coach for Hall County Schools.
Political experience: Candidate for Hall County Commissioner post 4 in 2016.
Candidates on new law that limits teaching race in classroom
In April, Gov. Kemp signed HB 1084, a law that limits what teachers can say about race in the classroom. Branded by Republican legislators as an effort to ban critical race theory, the law bars the teaching of nine “divisive concepts,” including teaching students that one race is superior to another or that the United States is fundamentally racist. School district officials have said these concepts are not taught in Hall County schools, and local legislators who supported the bill could not provide any examples. But as required by the law, the board passed its own policy in August. Some worry that a provision of the bill, which bars teachers from “espousing personal political beliefs” concerning the divisive concepts, may be used to limit what teachers can say when they talk about the history of race or slavery in the United States.
Middleton: “It is my understanding that those concepts being banned are not taught in our school system,” she said. “The bill, the way it is written, there are bits and pieces of it I would support, and there’s bits and pieces that I don’t,” though she said would need to study the bill more to provide specific examples. “I don’t want our teachers to have to teach in fear.”
Smith: “I don't know all the details of that bill, but I do think we have to find a way to make sure that we are not being divisive with kids in the classroom,” she said. “I would like to think there's a way for us to handle that without having to add another bill to the books.” She said teachers “have to stay neutral” but worries that the bill may stifle discussion: “That's one of the concerns I have about passing a bill. Sometimes you lock the teachers up to the point that they can't even have a normal debate or conversation in a classroom, because their hands are tied on every little thing.”
Candidates on banning books in schools
A wave of book bans has swept across the country in the past year. At an April school board meeting prompted by a mother’s complaint about an assigned book, parents and students had a spirited but civil debate on the pros and cons of censorship in schools. Hall school board members have said they will not become the “book police” by creating a district-wide list of banned books. Instead, decisions about instructional materials will be left up to committees at individual schools, and teachers will work to provide more alternative reading assignments to students whose parents take issue with an assigned book.
Middleton: She said she attended the April school board meeting where parents and students debated book bans, and she commended the way the board handled it. “There were a couple of spirited parents, especially those that brought the concerns up, but there were teachers there that supported the way that things are,” she said. She favors teachers providing more alternative reading assignments and said “teachers should be commended for diversifying their lessons.” She agrees with a March decision by a committee at Chestatee Academy, which barred sixth graders from reading the book “Dear Martin,” but left it available to seventh and eighth graders.
Smith: She agrees with Hall’s procedures for handling book challenges and says most books are properly categorized by grade level. Parents who want a book removed should follow the procedures, she said. “I do want parents to have some say so in that, but I don't think we can just go randomly get rid of tons of books, because that does become a constitutional issue,” she said. She wants students to have more choices for assigned readings but said it’s impossible to please every parent. “Some people don't even like Harry Potter and those things. You know, they think it's black magic and this, that and the other. But then other parents love that.”
Candidates on school security
In the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, over the summer, school districts across the United States have tried to beef up security. In July, Hall’s school board approved an additional $1 million for security but provided little detail about how it would spend the money.
Middleton: Having completed the Hall County Sheriff's Office Citizens Academy last month, a program designed to inform citizens about the role of the Sheriff's Office in the community, she believes the school system is in good hands. “I can say that the sheriff's department is very excited about their relationship with the school system and working with the school system to keep our children safe,” she said. One idea she has for improving security is to study how quickly people can approach the front entrance of a school. “I don't know every school building, but how easy is it for someone to, at a quick rate of speed, to be able to go from the street to the front entrance?” she said. She also spoke about the need to make schools more secure without stifling education. “We cannot make our buildings so constricted that our students cannot experience creativity and freedoms to learn.”
Smith: School safety is the “number one priority,” she said. “Hall County, I think, takes safety very seriously because I've been in (meetings) and we always had to be trained on safety. Every year they revisit it and we do a plan every year. So I think we're doing everything we know to do, but maybe the experts know something else that we can do.” Hall County Schools has a sheriff’s deputy at middle and high schools but not elementary schools. She said if the experts recommend placing deputies at elementary schools, she would be in favor of revisiting the budget and, if feasible, spending the estimated $3 to $4 million it would cost to hire more deputies.
Candidates on growth
The county grew by 13% from 2010 to 2020, with a total population over 203,000. In May, the district opened its first new school in 15 years, Cherokee Bluff Middle School, located at the southern end of the county where school board members say growth is happening the fastest.
Middleton: “Hall County’s rapid growth continues as the southern end of the county blossoms,” she said. “The growth in the eastern end of the county is experiencing a difficult growth pattern as land is constantly annexed by the city. My concerns are for the potential loss of tax revenue as well as the students and community impacted by the annexation.” She said she applauds new school construction, but added, “there is little discussion about the schools being closed,” saying she wants “to ensure the special services provided by the closing of schools are met in the new schools.”
Smith: “The big thing is, just continually reevaluate where that growth is and what we can do to best accommodate that growth,” she said, including tracking where permits are being given and where land is most available. “Of course, you have a lot of growth going on in the east end (of the county) because that is where land is still available, and it's probably the least expensive land at this point.” She said there are two main ways of accommodating growth: building new schools and redistricting. “It's not very popular, but there'll be times I think we're gonna have to look at some redistricting, to maximize the use of all our schools.”