Depending on which candidate you ask, the Richmond County Board of Education District 8 race needs a veteran with experience or a newcomer to replace officials who have overstayed their welcome.
The two-term incumbent, Jimmy Atkins, says his record and time on the board give him the expertise to deal with a cash-strapped budget and raising student achievement.
His challenger, Robert Cheek, said leaders who overstay their time in office are hurting the system.
“No public official should serve more than two terms,” Cheek said. “After two terms you get complacent. Right now I’m full of energy and want to get things done.”
Atkins’ campaign focuses on improving test scores, adding revenue to the budget and getting more involvement from the business community in the school system.
Cheek wants to address declining student enrollment, subpar test scores and the growing cronyism he said has consumed the district’s hiring process.
“THERE’S NOT A learning curve for me,” Atkins said. “I’ve taken the time to be in the community, hear the concerns and be the voice of the community in the boardroom.”
In his campaigning, Atkins has used his record to convince voters. His mailers tout his endorsement by the Georgia Association of Educators and the group’s Richmond County chapter.
Atkins has never voted for a property tax increase and helped pass the fourth round of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax this year, which will bring in $140 million for renovations and construction at schools.
While in office, he helped hire two superintendents. Atkins said he and the board had a vital role in selecting current Superintendent Frank Roberson, who has the ability to make the Richmond County School System world-class, Atkins said.
“I truly feel that Dr. Roberson, now that he’s back 100 percent, is one of the top superintendents, not only in Georgia but in this country,” Atkins said.
From here, Atkins said his goal is to continue making sure the proper faculty is in place so student achievement continues to rise as it has in the past few years. He also would like to build a collaboration between all elected officials in Augusta to improve residents’ quality of life, which “I think starts with education.”
“You need experienced leaders on the board now more than ever,” Atkins said. “The forecast does show it’s not going to get better (financially) in the next few years. ... We need to be creative and make sure our children can get the best education they can.”
CHEEK SAID HIS plan to run for school board began in 2010 when he chose to support instead of run against District 8 Augusta Commission candidate Wayne Guilfoyle.
He said his management experience and passion for children add to his qualifications for school board.
Cheek was raised in Augusta, graduated from Butler High School and skipped college to work for CSX railroad. In 1990 he moved to Pq Corp., where he is the shipping coordinator, responsible for making the product schedule and overseeing the raw materials that go into making soaps, newsprint and other liquid glass products.
Cheek said one of his biggest concerns, and the complaints he hears from residents, is the cronyism that has taken over the school system. He said he would help put an end to nepotism and give a fair shot to the most qualified applicants.
“People train to be principals for years, and they get overlooked because they’re not related to somebody,” Cheek said. “We need to put in equal hiring policies. We need to quit hiring friends and family.”
He said he supports expanding vocational and magnet programs, which could teach lifelong trades to students who don’t see college as a good fit.
He would like to examine the budget to reduce furlough days and reduce the top-heavy administration staff through reassignments. He said he’d like to see more schools take on the model of Blythe Elementary, where the campus is the central part of the neighborhood and there is involvement from businesses and community members.
Cheek is an active volunteer at Cross Creek High and Pine Hill Middle, where his two children attend, and he’d like to see more families do the same.
Looking back over the past eight years, Cheek said he is not happy with the progress in the school system and could be that catalyst for improvement.
“I’m not a politician,” Cheek said. “I’m just a concerned parent and a taxpayer. I’m concerned about the direction the school board is going. We’ve all got to be held accountable, from the custodian to the teacher to the superintendent. We’re all in this together.”