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: Bill Thompson is the incumbent, having served since 2010 on the board, and he faces Democrat Pat Calmes.
Meet the candidates
Occupation: Retired; worked for Family and Children Services for 10 years specializing in adoption of special needs children and large sibling groups, and 20 years for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles specializing in supervision of parolees who were high risk/high need in Hall County.
Political experience: Candidate in 2020 for District 29 seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Family: Widow, mother of three daughters and 10 grandchildren, five in Hall schools.
Occupation: Driver for Fox Entertainment; worked 45 years in schools
Political experience: Board member since 2010
Family: Married with five children, three who worked in school system, and two grandchildren in Hall schools
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 section 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.
Calmes: “I don't think there was really a need for that law in Georgia, actually, because this critical race theory, which this House Bill 1084 is about, is really not being taught in the United States. It may be taught on a graduate level in some colleges. … It's just part of culture wars.” She finds “very concerning” a provision in the law which bars teachers from espousing their personal political beliefs in relation to the nine divisive concepts, worrying that it could be used beyond its scope to muffle teachers. “It’s probably very terrifying for teachers to have to face that kind of scrutiny,” she said. “I can't imagine being a teacher right now and what they're facing.”
Thompson: “I don’t think it was needed,” he said. Nonetheless, he supports the bill. “I don’t feel like it should ever be taught that one group is superior to another. In my opinion, that would just totally divide everyone.” He added: “Yes, I do not want one race to be taught to be superior over another. If that means I support it, yes.”
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.
Calmes: She agrees with the school board’s current stance on book bans, in that she opposes the creation of a district-wide list of banned books. “We already have a good system in place,” she said. That system allows a five-person committee at a school to decide what to do when a parent challenges a book. “I’m very opposed to book bans,” she said. “That type of restriction is not constructive to the learning process at all for young people.”
Thompson: He said the school district’s process for challenging books is appropriate, and he opposes any district-wide book bans. “Once you start banning a book or materials system wide, there will be no end to it,” he said. “We can't justify, I don't think, banning one book because a certain group doesn’t like it and not banning another one because another group doesn’t like it. I mean, you got to be consistent.”
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. Since then, the board has floated the idea of buying biometric gun safes to store rifles that could be used in an active shooter scenario. But some worry about the possibility of students accessing the safes should they be approved.
Calmes: She said she agrees with the board's current security plans. “If everyone follows the rules, I think they will be able to keep the school system safe, continue to keep it safe.” But she is worried about the possibility that the board may approve a proposal to place biometric gun safes on school campuses. “Oh, yes,” she said when asked if she is worried about having gun safes on school campuses. “I think whenever there are more guns, there's more accidents that could happen. … I guess I'm very conservative when it comes to access to guns in a school setting because … it’s possible that students could get the guns from the adults, especially in a high school situation, and use the guns on the teachers and other students. There is always so much that has to be considered when you have any kind of gun in a school setting or any other public setting.”
Thompson: A big part of school security is “to make every single person in the building more aware of what's going on around them,” he said. “It would be almost impossible to stop someone that had their mind set on shooting up a school. That’s kind of been shown over and over. … You definitely have to be aware of those students that feel bullied or oppressed in some way by others, and they might look to take out their anger out on everyone. And we've got to find those kids and be aware of what can happen with those folks and try to prevent it in any way possible.” He said he and the other board members haven’t talked about the possibility that students might be able to access the biometric gun safes should the board approve them. But, he added, “I would have to be very careful … about who has access and who has the codes and those kinds of things.”
Candidates on growth
The county grew by 13% from 2010 to 2020. Hall County Schools has opened a new middle school, and it is planning to build four new elementary schools. In July, the school board approved $41.8 million for the first elementary school.
Calmes: She recognizes the “explosive growth” that’s occurring at the southern end of the county. “It is a problem,” she said. “The rising cost of building, the rising cost of how we purchase property, too, has to be taken into consideration when you're building new schools or adding onto already present locations.” Speaking of the new Cherokee Bluff Middle School, she said, “I can understand why they decided to build those schools because that part of the county really has the largest growth at this present time.”
Thompson: “I think we've handled it pretty well,” he said of the school board’s response to growth in the county, adding that growth is inevitable given that Hall County is an desirable place to live. “We're a great school system and we're going to grow,” he said. When asked about how to balance fiscal responsibility with the responsibility of accommodating the growing population by building new schools, he said, “You have needs that have to be met. You just try to pick the best way that will have the least impact on the citizens via taxes. … Is it going to hurt the pocketbooks of the citizens more than it's beneficial to the schools? And that's a hard decision to make right there.”