Q&A with Board of Education District 2 candidate Kirrena Gallagher

Kirena Gallagher is running for the District 2 seat on the CCSD Board of Education. A mother of two children who attend CCSD schools, she has a son at Coile Middle School and another at Cedar Shoals High school. Gallagher grew up in Athens and has lived on both sides of town, attending Gaines, Whitehead, and Oglethorpe Elementary schools, all four middle schools in CCSD and graduating from Clarke Central High School.  A Fowler Drive neighborhood leader, Gallagher distributes food, reaches out to underserved community members and provides people with access to necessary resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, Gallagher helped revive Grand Slam, a summer program to help deter youth from violence and gangs. She also interacts with the community one on one, answering questions and problem solving.

News Editor Stephany Gaona-Perez: What is your connection to education?

Kirrena Gallagher, District 2 BOE Candidate: Education is everything and everywhere. My children right now are the biggest connection. Since they started public school I’ve been pretty involved all the way from pre-K to now tenth grade. I immerse myself in the culture and climate of education. 

SG: On your Facebook page for your campaign, you wrote: “The truth is, I have no desire to always be politically correct.” You then explained that you value uniqueness and transparency. Could you further elaborate on what that means to you and how you plan to avoid alienating constituents that may disagree with you? 

KG: I think that for individuals whose focus is on being a politician, [they] lose sight of what it is they signed up to do in the first place. I think that being a school board member is a service position. It is not one to build a career so that you can make a bajillion dollars one day. This is not where you can manipulate policies and funding to push your own agenda. I think as a school board member or with anything, your purpose, your desire to be engaged should be pure and not for politics. I think we get caught up and miss when we get into things for the wrong reason. And I’m not sure about alienating any constituents that would disagree with that. 

SG: What inspired you to run?

KG: Our District 2 seat has been, I would say, underserved. We had a representative who had served for a very long time, over 30 years uncontested. Then he resigned for health reasons, and then we had this whole process that was foreign to the board so they appointed Ms. Frances Berry who later resigned. Now we have Mr. Antwon Stephens who will serve out the rest of this term but is not interested in running again. I think we need some stability for District 2 and I’m hoping to bring that. 

SG: How do you plan on bringing stability to District 2?

KG: I have been engaged with the school board over the years in a variety of ways including one on one conversations and e-mails, asking  questions, speaking at the school board meetings, and being on the outside and advocating for students, teachers and parents, pretty much everybody. Having some insight within, you know what it looks like on the inside. I think having that perspective going in will enable me to withstand some of the challenges that come with being a school board member.

Staff writer Jackie Wright: How has your campaign for the District 2 seat been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?

KG: I am an extremely social person. I love meeting with people, and COVID-19 has made it very difficult because I have to stay six feet away from people. I think there’s just a general unspoken consensus that knocking on doors is not the smartest thing, and I don’t really want to knock on doors because I think that some people may see it as being disrespectful or ignorant. I have made some phone calls. I continue to make phone calls. I have sent out postcards in the mail. Those just went out last week, and I ordered some more. I just went to the neighborhood across the street without knocking on doors, and I just kind of slid the card into the door. I had on my mask and my gloves. I was very careful. I’m just talking to people where I can, doing interviews where I can. 

JW: What do you think the district has done well, and what do you think they could have done better with, as they deal with this crisis in the county?

KG: I think that this district has done well coordinating food distribution. The district has done a really great job in having to respond to a crisis with really short notice. I think that the district did what it thought was in the best interest of students, teachers and families by moving to a more digital way of learning. Something that we could have done better but I’m hoping that we’ll do in the future, is have a plan for situations that we don’t know. Just have a think tank that is like “Okay so this could possibly happen. Let’s come up with a way to better assist students with learning and not relying solely on devices and making sure that we have protective factors in place for children who are homeless or children and families who experienced violence.” 

FULL INTERVIEW: FULL INTERVIEW: Select responses have been transcribed to read, and the full interview conducted via Zoom can also be viewed. Video by Stephany Gaona-Perez.

JW: What specifically in the future, do you think the district could do to help – especially the more underserved students in the county – recover from this crisis financially and in terms of health?

KG: We could probably strengthen our partnerships with the county, with mental health providers, with the hospital, so that all of our communication is streamlined. We are all on the same page about information and resources and what it looks like for underserved communities to access those resources. A lot of the underserved communities that we’re seeing now, that I think are more visible now because of COVID-19, they’ve always been there. I think as an entire community – not just as a school district as an entire community – we need to make sure that all of our decision makers and providers are on the same page about information: how to access it, the collection of data and pretty much everything. We all need to be on the same page and not operate in silos. 

JW: If it were up to you, how would the election in June be conducted ideally?

KG: I like the idea of doing vote by mail. I think that’s safe. I used to work at the polls and saw people come in and vote and get their stickers out and just feel good about it. I think I’m going to miss that this year, but I like the vote by mail. I’m hoping that this will have cleared, like gone away and disappeared by June so that people can actually go to the polls. I do think that on the other side of this we’re all going to think like 10 times about how close we are to people and how often we wash our hands and how well we use our manners. But I’m hoping that this is gone, so the people can actually go to the polls. I think voting by mail is still a good thing. Ballots should be coming out now, if they turn in their absentee applications. So, I don’t know, I’ll remain optimistic.

JW: What do you think the solution is to all of the class time students are missing, especially the ones who have a harder time catching up with computers?

KG: I don’t have just one solution, that is a big question. There was a public notice that came out earlier this week or last week from the district just saying everything is on e-mail May 1. I’ll use my own children for example. Academically, I think that they would still perform well. They have the potential to perform well, one of them is doing well. The other one’s just playing. But I was not able to stand with them every day and make sure that they were doing work. And because the classes are so different and the expectations are different and it feels like busy work to them, that has been a challenge for me as a parent. I like that idea of just saying, “Okay what your grade was in 3rd quarter, you have an opportunity to pull it up now.” I think that’s probably the best solution for the situation that we have. I think the district made the right call.

JW: Do you think next year we might need more days of school so that students will be able to catch up?

KG: I am hoping that we take the first maybe month or two of school, maybe the first half of the year, I don’t know, and really do some catch-up. I’m hoping that we’ll use our waivers, all of our flexibility, because we are a charter district, and make sure that we are focusing on making sure that all students are on track. Even the ones that are years behind, just coming up with creative ways to make sure that we are providing support to those students. I think the district, I think education period, is able to see that there is some major disconnect with the expectations that we have of students, in regards to academics. I’m hoping that next school year we can take some time. Like forget testing, we are not doing standardized testing, we are making sure that we do enough testing to make sure that students are on track. And we are better prepared to move forward because I think that this has definitely put us in a position to be like “Okay yeah we really need to slow down and make sure that we’re doing what is in the best interest of students.”

JW: What do you see as the biggest strength in the charter system?

KG: We’ve got a lot of them, but I’ll name two. One is our flexibility. While having a charter, I don’t think that we are using it the way that we should be, but we have a lot of flexibility in regards to curriculum and instruction: what a school day actually looks like and how governance actually works. We need to do better there, but we have our local school governance teams. I serve on Coile’s LSGT, and I think that the teams that are working collaboratively with the schools and helping drive the decisions that benefit everyone in the school community, I think those are the ones that we need to make sure that we’re celebrating. 

JW: If you’re elected, how would you better take advantage of that status? What changes would you try to make?

KG: I would definitely advocate for our local school governance teams’ innovation grant funds to go directly to the schools, so that schools can decide how they’re going to be innovative without the pressure of time frames. Then just encourage the district to do follow-ups maybe twice a year, just to see how those funds were spent, and the impact that it’s had on achievement for students. I would also advocate for better use of our charter waivers and making sure that we are exploring all the possibilities of getting all of our students toward their definition of success before graduation. I know I really want to advocate for better use of the additional funds that come with being a charter district — just being more creative as a district.

JW: What would your priorities be for those funds?

KG: For the innovation grant funds, I would want them to go straight to the schools to create those priorities. But as a district, I would really like to see us put more funding into creating spaces for kids just to be kids and coming up with creative ways to partner with the county government for use of facilities for students. I’m a social person. I think that most of the students that I’ve met are very social and that’s how they learn, but using funds to really promote a culture and climate that students see as the best learning environments for themselves and empowering students to step up. I’m not saying like be on a board or committee or your LSGT, but really being a part of the process of finding solutions for students. I think as adults we think we have all the answers, and we’re forgetting that we’re making decisions for people. Just because they’re under 18 doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. If the youth are our future we need to make sure that they’re part of the decision making process.

Assistant Editor Brittany Lopez: Can you talk to us about why you decided to run for the school board? 

KG: In addition to the seat being underrepresented, I really would like to make sure everyone feels like they have a voice. More than anything else, I want you and adults to know that you can be part of the decision making progress. It doesn’t matter what your income or socioeconomic status is, what side of town you’re from or what you look like. 

BL: If chosen to be on the board, how would you motivate the community to be active? 

KG: I think social media is a beautiful thing. Sharing information is something that we talk a lot about. Like we say, “Transparency all the time,” but I don’t think anyone has defined what transparency actually looks like. Transparency for me looks like sharing information at a basic level. I would also like to get the community more involved and have more community conversations. Not town halls where there’s somebody standing up at the front and giving information and then waiting for questions. 

BL: Latinx students make up a quarter of students in CCSD and a large percentage of District 2, yet no board member is Latinx. How will you work to represent your constituents in issues specific to the Latinx community? 

KG: I think not pretending I’m a spokesperson for any particular group. So definitely not pretending that I’m an expert, but reaching out to the members of that particular community. Making sure I’m doing a really great job of listening and learning. Just working collaboratively to find solutions and resources. 

BL: If chosen to be on the board, what committees would you want to serve on? 

KG: Definitely policy committee, that one is a really big one for me. I’ve always wanted to be on that one. Government relations because I think collaboration and partnership are very important. Finance committee, and it’s escaping me — the name for buildings and facilities (property committee). Like the purchase of those, maybe that’s finance. I don’t know, but I’d like to very much be part of that one. 

BL: So you said you wanted to be part of the policy committee, why? 

KG: The policy committee looks at the policies that directly impact us not just the board but school leadership to guide us. There are some policies that I would really like to look at like the student code of conduct and making sure we have a positive one. 

BL: What experiences do you bring to the board that provide a unique perspective? 

KG: Serving on a lot of boards and being engaged in the community for a long time. Also coming from a family that’s engaged in the community and working with students and teachers on both sides of town. Having children in the system; I have one child in three different schools. I think that’s pretty unique. Like I said earlier, I don’t really like being an expert on anything, and that’s a dangerous position to be in. But I’ve got really good community connections with individuals and organizations, so I think my perspective is definitely different and unique. 

BL: If chosen to be on the board, what are your goals? 

KG: Goal number one would be to make sure I create an example of what communication actually looks like when it comes to constituents. I am hoping to motivate individuals to ask hard questions and get involved in the process. I’m going to keep saying this, “be the change” and to really bring a voice to students and teachers that have been historically intimidated about speaking up. So people of color know that they too have powers that are yours for the taking. 

BL: What issues do you currently see on the school board that you would like to fix? 

KG: I was raised that if there’s an issue or if we’re going to the store, my mom would say “don’t show your butt in the store.”  And I think our school board shows their butt in the store, which for me means arguing and kind of just embarrassing the community because of some of the things that are said and done. Having sidebar conversations with everybody. If we are going to have drama, we are going to have drama behind closed doors. But we are a united front for this community and we represent, as a collective, all of Athens. We should not be doing the very thing we put students out of school for. 

BL: Do you think District 2 should be resized and why? 

KG: I do, and not because of schools, but because the school district maps don’t align with the county’s district maps. So one thing that I’ve seen just from looking at this, from running a campaign, District 2 commission is not just the District 2 school board district. We definitely should make sure our maps are aligned. 

BL: In your opinion which school programs necessitate greater funding? 

KG: Everything in education needs greater funding. For students, I would say in elementary my children were able to participate in clusters, which exposed them to anything that they were interested in, like dance or music. Definitely our arts programs, more directly anything arts related. I think that we need to be more cognizant of how we are spending our funding and making sure that we’re putting it into things that students have an interest in. Also our interventions like reading intervention, we definitely need to put money back there.

BL: So what’s your opinion on 1:1 technology? Would you want to put funding into that? 

KG: I think that before putting money back into more computers we need to put money into teaching students how to type. Understanding how systems work, maybe coding. That we are doing the back end of it and making sure that our students are prepared to use computers once they are using them.

BL: What’s your opinion on HB251

House Bill 251 allows students to transfer schools within their district regardless of zoning. Families can submit an application to transfer, with acceptance depending on space in the desired school. 

KG: I think that House Bill 251 is a good idea, I appreciate it. What I don’t want to see happen is it being expanded to where it’s open to everyone. If so we will start to see a lot more segregation, more than what we already have in our district. We will see families flock to one school and prefer this school over another. But for families that need it, I’m glad it’s there. 

SG: Dr. Means said he wanted to make the district more equitable; specifically to close the gap in grades between black, brown, and white students. How much progress do you think he made in those goals?

KG: I think that as a district, we need to be open to change and the uncomfortableness that comes with change. I think that Dr. Means was able to at least get us as a community to start having those conversations and face some hard truths about some of our skeletons that we’ve been hiding in closets. And there have been some educational opportunities that people have taken advantage of. So I think we’re still in like the information phase, and not in an action phase, in my personal opinion. 

SG: What would you do to fix socioeconomic and racial inequalities in the CCSD schools?

KG: I think most solutions start with a conversation. And that is not something that I would be able to do on my own, or as a board member or as a board. Collectively, I think that is going to take the entire community, to really make a priority so that we can get to the point where we can say as a community we have a plan. 

SG: What do you look for in a new superintendent? What qualities do you want a superintendent for CCSD to possess?

KG: Someone who is open to learning and listening. Someone who understands that education is a business run by policies and policymakers, but with a really sincere heart for individuals and communities, and knowing that while the reality is education is a business, our reality as non-superintendents is that we are all living this. We are expecting for that person to do what’s in the best interest of us, and not big government or test score data. 

SG: How do you feel about District 2 Representative Antwon Stephens’ appointment to the board? 

KG: I think that was a mess, honestly. I think that we, as a school board, need to have policies in place and procedures to fill vacant seats, and those be understood and communicated so that we don’t end up with a kind of mess that we just saw with this last appointment. I think it kind of backfired to where they thought there was a policy of practice procedure in place that will work but I don’t honestly don’t think that works. 

SG: Are there any specific policies and procedures that you would like to see in place? 

KG: Yes. We definitely need something that works but we also need it flexible, not fluid. We do need it [to be] flexible because we never know what the situation may be. So in the case of District 2, Mr. Payne left for health reasons, and so the board was kind of left to figure out what to do next. So maybe having the county to figure out another election process because I don’t know if appointments are the best practice for a school board seat, especially when that person is to represent an entire district. So it should be up to the people who live in that district. 

SG: What issues within CCSD schools and the Athens community are the highest priority for you?

KG: Underserved populations. I think we need to be more creative in making sure that we are making solution-based decisions. I think we really need to work on our cross-communication in regards to children and families, and making sure that we have more support for our homeless population. I think we [make sure they have transportation] very well [and] making sure that those children have meals on the weekend. But, connecting them with outside resources outside of the school district to make sure that they are getting additional academic support. I think with mental health, the district does a very good job of referring out. But not just for our homeless population but for all students in general, I think as a district we need to understand and appreciate that education happens everywhere, and we need to embrace that as a district, and make sure that for the additional support that students need that we are sharing our space, and our resources with everyone so that all students feel like they are getting the most out of our school system. We can’t call ourselves an institution of education if we think that the school district is the only place that people get an education. 

SG: Why should the community vote for you? What makes you a good candidate for the community?

KG: I love community, and I love seeing and being a part of change. I have a vested interest in the education of not just our students but the adults. I understand that education is not the sole responsibility of students, but we need to make sure that we are providing education to adults. Children are in a small building between six and eight hours sometimes longer, but they still go home. We need to make sure that we are sharing information and resources with families so that they can be an extension of what we do in school. I don’t mind talking to you, and being asked really hard questions. I ask hard questions all the time. I am open to receiving some hard questions, and if I don’t know the answer, I won’t pretend to know the answer. But I will ask a lot more questions so that I can answer that question. I am open to learning. I really see the potential of our district. I don’t want people to give up on our school district, so I will do my very best to make sure that people see the reason to stick with Clarke County School District. 

JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KG: I’m excited about this opportunity. I am excited that there are two people running for the seat because I think that just shows that people in our district do recognize that our district needs representation. It’s been a seat that’s been uncontested for a very long time. I’m looking forward to serving on the school board and bringing all of my experiences and exposures outside of that role as a school board member.