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GOP bills seek changes in Georgia’s second-largest county

November 10, 2021 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) — Republicans are moving to ram through bills changing the composition of the county commission and school board in Georgia’s second-largest county after Democrats took control of both bodies.

The Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee voted 4-3 to approve Senate Bill 5EX on Wednesday, which would change how the Gwinnett County Board of Education is elected from partisan to nonpartisan races. It would also redraw school board districts, taking back that power from the current board.

The committee briefly considered but did not vote on Senate Bill 6EX, which would expand Gwinnett County’s commission from four members to nine. A chair would continue to be elected countywide, but would only vote in future meetings in the event of a tie.

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The measures are the latest proposals by Republicans to alter local government, including splitting Columbia County from a Democratic-dominated Augusta judicial circuit, allowing the Buckhead neighborhood to secede from Atlanta, and creating new cities in Cobb County after Democrats took over county government there.

Sen. Clint Dixon of Buford, the lone Republican in Gwinnett County’s Senate delegation, said the school board changes are needed because his constituents have voiced alarm over the board’s earlier decision to fire longtime Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks before his scheduled retirement and because they’re worried school board members may impose curriculum changes including the teaching of critical race theory. While that term refers to a particular academic theory about how legal structures can perpetuate racism, Republicans use the term to attack a broad range of efforts to teach about racism as well as efforts to include diverse populations.

“My constituents are very concerned,” Dixon said. “We’ve gotten in my opinion, currently one of the best school systems in the state. The direction that this current board is taking our school system, I’ve gotten very nervous, along with the parents in Gwinnett are very nervous.”

The 180,000-student Gwinnett district is the state’s largest, teaching more than 10% of all public school students statewide. Students are one-third Hispanic and one-third Black, with smaller shares of white and Asian students.

Democrats argued the bill was an attempt to grab back power white Republicans have lost. They also questioned whether the proposed districts would violate the federal Voting Rights Act by removing a Black-majority district.

“I find it very hard to believe this is not an attack on people of color in Gwinnett County,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat who testified against the bill.

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Dixon argued that the bill expanding the county commission is needed because the four district commissioners now each represent nearly 250,000 people as the county has grown.

“This bill would help the citizens of Gwinnett be better represented at the local level,” Dixon said.

The measure was set aside without a vote after Democrats complained they had not been provided maps of the proposed districts and the committee ran out of time.

Democrats dispute that it’s even proper for the General Assembly to consider the bills, saying Republicans are violating rules that are supposed to require a majority of Gwinnett County’s Democratic-dominated legislative delegation to approve local legislation. They also question whether it’s proper for lawmakers to consider the bill in a special session where Gov. Brian Kemp said local laws could only be considered “to avoid unreasonable hardship or avoid undue impairment of public functions.”

“This is out of order and incredibly concerning in terms of the way in which you are trying to rush legislation,” said Rep. Sam Park, a Lawrenceville Democrat who chairs the Gwinnett County delegation.

Dixon said his bills are allowed in the special session because local election officials would need time to prepare for new elections next year, and because a nonpartisan election would take place in May, not November.

Democrats also complained vocally after State and Local Government Operations Committee Chairman Lee Anderson, a Grovetown Republican, ignored a motion to table a vote on the first bill.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.