I-TEAM: District 9 candidates | Keeping it positive or keeping it real

Published: Nov. 3, 2022 at 7:20 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - District 9 is a super district. It’s important because the board member serves as a second representative for Districts 1,2, 4, and 5.

It is home to 15 elementary schools, two middle schools, six high schools, and three magnet schools.

Venus Cain has held this seat for the past 15 years and hopes to represent it for another four.

She is challenged this election by newcomer Christopher Mulliens.

Cain was born and raised in LA, career Army, a 30-plus year resident of Augusta, and a parent to graduates of the Richmond County School System.

Versus the bus driver, Christopher Mulliens, born and raised in Jacksonville, army veteran, eight-year resident of Augusta, master’s in business, board member of the Augusta Richmond County Library System, founder of the Freddie May Foundation, former school bus driver, and parent of a student in the Richmond County School System.

Cain tells us her mindset is to increase community support by focusing on the positive rather than the negative.

Liz Owens: “What do you believe will be your biggest challenge if reelected?”

Venus Cain: “Right now, people don’t see, it’s easy to talk about negativity. What we aren’t doing right, but they don’t always talk about the good things we are doing right.”

Owens: “It’s no secret the district has been a failing district for some time between D and F- and it’s been for about a decade. "

Venus Cain: “No, No, No. I am going to dispute you on that and anyone else.”

Glenn Hills, Josey, and Butler all rank at the bottom, with an F rating by the state. ARC, Laney, and Davidson all have a D rating.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement rated three of the six high schools in her district an “F” and two others a “D” in 2019. The Richmond County School System as a whole received an F.

Cain says the failing grade does not reflect the changes to the state’s scoring system and is based on outdated data.

The ITEAM did analyze recent data.

More than half of all students in District 9 are at a non-magnet high school and scored as “beginner learners” across every subject at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

We found COVID isn’t fully to blame; some scores began falling prior to the pandemic.

Take Josey High School for example. We found 54 percent of the students scored at “beginner learner” level in algebra and 41 percent in literature and composition during the 2014-2015 school year.

Four years later, we found the number of “beginner learners” in algebra jumped to 78 percent. In literature and composition, 51 percent.

Scores fell despite Josey spending more money per pupil than the district and state average for the year. Again, this was still pre-COVID pandemic.

Fast forward through the pandemic to the end of the 2020-21 school year. In algebra, a staggering 97 percent of Josey’s students scored as “beginner learners”. In literature and composition, 88 percent.

“I don’t care what nobody says,” adds Cain. “We got a damn good system.”

The ITEAM found children falling through the cracks of a broken system over the past year. We uncovered nearly 3,000 students missing from Richmond County classrooms at the end of last school year. We exposed barriers preventing homeless students from going to school and students with disabilities from receiving services.

Cain took offense to our reports. She tried to explain why after our interview.

Venus Cain: “Because some of us recognize there are issues in the Black community. Let me put it to you this way, you know when a child is being molested it’s an unkept secret?”

Owens: “Yes?”

Cain: “I think that may be the issue...that we know some these things are going on but unspoken.”

Spoken, she believes, only discourages parents and deters them from becoming involved.

Owens to Cain: “So, you think the biggest challenge, if reelected, would be fighting negative perception or news reports and keeping Dr. Bradshaw on?”

Cain: “Keeping Dr. Bradshaw, letting my community see what is really good about our system, and increasing the support of the community.”

Owens also sat down for an extensive interview with Mulliens for his take on the state of affairs within the school district.

Owens asked Mulliens, “If elected what is the first thing you would really like to accomplish?”

Mulliens: “I think the communication transparency factor one- and also get parents involved more involved.”

Christopher Mulliens explained his mindset is to break the cloud of secrecy over the 800 block of Broad Street and the sea of distrust will dry up.

“Parents are the key. We need to have someone in there who will bridge that gap…that is going to answer that call and say you know what? Let me be that person that will make sure I communicate properly. That will be accountability and that’ll have the leadership to say - you may not be doing it, but let me do it and showing parents the love.”

Mulliens says he was a witness to the disconnect between the system and the community while driving a school bus for the district.

“I was at ARC taking some students in the band to the Saint Patricks Day parade and as they were getting on the bus - the drum line - they were back there, in the back, and a student hit the seat with his drum and the gun fell out. There was a hole in the seat the student put in there and the gun fell out.”

Records show BOE Police entered the loaded gun from his bus into evidence that day, but Mulliens says District never addressed the incident with the other bus drivers or parents. He believes the lack of communication not only pushes parents away but also district employees, especially those barely earning a livable wage.

“We are wearing so many multiple hats as a bus driver, as a teacher, custodian, and cafeteria worker. We play mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, and referee sometimes. We don’t value the people in the system.”

He believes by increasing transparency and pay, employee retention will improve and in turn, parents will become more involved in a system they know and trust.

“We have failing schools. We need to change that. I see the potential in Augusta. I see the potential in our children, our student’s teachers, bus drivers, custodians, and everybody in this system. We have so much potential but we need the right leadership to make some things.”

Owens: “Some people are going to say this has been a failing system why should I vote for someone when the system has not improved under their watch?”

Cain: “But it has Liz, that’s what you keep missing….”

Owens: “What would you say to those thinking hey, maybe it’s time for someone younger someone who is more in tune with the age of the kids dealing with cell phones and a pandemic? What would you say to them as to why they should vote for you?”

Cain: “Let me put it to you this way. You are going to have open heart surgery. The best doctor to do open heart surgery is in New York for the condition you have. But, we have this mechanic over here that used to be a mechanic that only has one or two years doing heart surgery. Which way you going?  Just because you are youthful doesn’t mean you have all the answers.”

Owens: “You are running against someone who has been in office for a long time what would you say to those voters who usually vote for her? Why should they vote for you?”

Mulliens: “Simply because if you want a change, change starts now. If you want something different you need to pull someone in who is different. We complain and complain and complain and talk about we want something different, well now is the time.”

The incumbent keeping it positive. The bus driver keeping it real.

The people will choose Tuesday.