By Jason Massad
When challenger Nancy Jester received around 150 more votes than incumbent Jim Redovian for the local seat on the DeKalb County Board of Education, two things became apparent, according to Redovian.
One, it shows there’s an anti-incumbent sentiment that has roots in an ongoing, widespread scandal across the school district, he said. Two, Nancy Jester, a former financial professional living in Brookhaven who now organizes at a local school, knows how to run a campaign and get votes, he said.
“This hit me very hard in the side of the head,” said Redovian, a board member from Dunwoody. “I didn’t get into this to be a campaigner. She’s very, very good at that.”
Jester and Redovian will face off in a run-off election Nov. 30. Neither candidate was able to obtain a majority of the votes in a race that began with three candidates. Merope Gillis, a Dunwoody resident, pulled more than 9 percent of the vote in the general election. Jester received 45.75 percent of the vote, or 9,192 votes, and Redovian received 44.52 percent, or 8,945.
With such a narrow margin separating the candidates, the result will likely pivot on whether each candidate can energize their voting bases and send them back to the polls. A lot also rides on how Gillis’ supporters’ decide to vote – and in what numbers.
Jester worked as a financial actuarial consultant before becoming a full-time mother and a organizer at Hawthorne Elementary School. She says she brings the expertise to “manage the financial, regulatory and compliance complexity of an over $1 billion budget” of the state’s third largest school district.
She also touts the fact that she has children currently attending DeKalb County schools and is committed to reforming a school system that is sorting through multiple allegations of corruption while being scrutinized by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an oversight body, which holds the power to decertify school districts.
“It is time for the Board of Education to acknowledge the broken trust that exists between the board and the community,” she said.
Her experience in organizing in the school system has been based around Hawthorne Elementary School, where she has been an elected member of the school council, was among the originators of a newly formed foundation to support the school and served as the foundation’s president. The foundation raised money to hire a full-time art teacher.
Redovian, a familiar face around the district, owns Atlantic Southern Products, a small business located in Norcross he has successfully run since 1985 that deals in extruded and molded rubber products.
He raised six children, all of whom graduated from DeKalb County Schools. Redovian was one of two candidates – the other was Eugene Walker – who received the endorsement of eduKALB, a community and business organization aimed at improving DeKalb schools.
Redovian said he is committed to reforming the district from the inside. Scandals have emerged involving allegations of school district executives funneling building contracts to insiders, administrators selling their textbooks inside the school district and board members profiting from their relationships with the school district.
Redovian said board members were caught unaware of the scandal, in large part, because the now-deposed superintendent allegedly helped hide the corruption from the board.
“The problem was it wasn’t blatant,” he said. “It was extremely well hidden. We’re not allowed as board members to deal with any of the day-to-day operations.”
The board now has a key insight into the inter-workings of the school district. A newly assigned auditor reports directly to the board. The board has also written a “whistle-blower” policy that encourages rank-and-file employees to come forward when they witness questionable dealings, Redovian said.
Redovian sees charter clusters – a new concept where a high school and all of its feeder schools have more local control – could be the key to turning around some of the poorly performing schools in the district.
“The charter allows local control and gives you the right to have a say in what you want to accomplish,” he said. “The tradeoff is that you have to produce.”
He also says his experience building consensus on the nine-member school board is invaluable to being an effective member. Redovian was important in building board consensus on a $58 million allocation to the aging Chamblee Charter High School.
“It takes you two to three years to learn on the job,” he said.
The DeKalb County school district, despite its bad press, has made gains too, he said. The district’s graduation rates have been raised 4 to 5 percentage points.
Redovian seems uncomfortable playing the role of politician. In the crucial days leading up to the runoff, Redovian plans on spending the long Thanksgiving weekend in Ohio, visiting his mother.