KSU student Austin Heller drops out of school board race due to redistricting

Austin Heller in front of Cobb County School District building reading speechAustin Heller (photograph by Arielle Robinson)

By Arielle Robinson

Austin Heller, a political science student at Kennesaw State University, concluded his campaign for the Cobb Board of Education’s Post 4 Thursday night, citing new redistricting maps passed by GOP legislators.

Heller originally planned his announcement at the school district’s building on Glover Street for 6:30 p.m. but postponed it to support the Campbell High School students who silently protested the board for tougher anti-racist measures the same night.

Outside the building entrance, Heller gave a speech titled, “The Start of Our Georgia.”

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“I come before you all today because of newly approved Cobb County Commission and School District maps that disqualify our campaign and move me into a post that is not up for re-election until 2024,” Heller said.

Under new maps, Heller would be moved to Post 1, which is Randy Scamihorn’s post.

New maps, supported by the school board’s GOP majority, have also drawn Democrats Charisse Davis and Dr. Jaha Howard into Davis’ District 6. This leaves Howard’s District 2 with no incumbent, as he is running for state school superintendent.

Becky Sayler, Andres Sandate, Matthew “Anthony” Sears, and Stephen George Jr. are running for Howard’s seat.

Nichelle Davis is the only person running for Davis’ seat.

Davis chose not to seek reelection.

Heller, a Democrat, entered the race at 19 years old last July, seeking to unseat Republican incumbent and school board Chairman David Chastain.

Now, Democrat Catherine Pozniak is Chastain’s single challenger in the 2022 election.

Heller graduated from the Hardaway School in Columbus, Georgia, and is a resident assistant at KSU. He says he is a future educator.

“I believed, and still do, that I would serve Cobb County well on our Board of Education,” Heller said. “I graduated from Georgia public schools in 2019. My ability to relate to the student struggle is what led me to make this decision, as I graduated in a time after invention of the Smart Board and am still a student in a global pandemic — something no one of the current Board can say.”

Throughout his campaign, Heller hosted literacy events for local families which offered free books.

He said his campaign was a way to bridge Republicans and Democrats together and create a more inclusive Georgia.

“Each month at our Board meetings, I literally reached across the aisle to listen to parents from all walks of life to better understand why our county and community is so divided,” Heller said. “I asked parents and teachers their priorities for Cobb County schools, and many discredited me despite this engagement.

“…I didn’t see families as Democrat or Republican,” he said. “I saw and continue to see people as Georgians, as families wanting the best for their children. Our campaign was the start of our Georgia.”

Heller said that people would infantilize him because of his age. He also said he received harsh criticism for being an anti-racism advocate.

“I was berated online for advocating for racial equity and incorporating a Chief Diversity Officer and Relevant Learning Council for our district,” the student said. “I was told that I wouldn’t receive enough votes because I was ‘naive,’ ‘lacking wisdom,’ and ‘missing life experience…’

“…Let me be clear — this is all coded language intended to suppress youth engagement and maintain the status quo by falsely equating capability and drive with age. My question to you is, how is the status quo working for you right now?”

Heller ended his speech with thanking Davis, Howard, and Leroy “Tre” Hutchins “for continuing to advocate for our students in Cobb County against a Board majority that despises democratic engagement.”

He said his campaign received over $3,000 in donations and thanked everyone who supported him.

He also encouraged people to vote for other progressive school board candidates.

Heller said that although his campaign has ended, “our movement is for educational equity and that never ends until it is a reality for all students.”

“To all my Black and Brown students and families fighting for equity and accurate history, we will not falter,” Heller said. “To all the student leaders of Lassiter High School fighting to be able to speak up at our board meetings, I stand with you. To the Wheeler High School students, we will not give up on renaming your school after someone more honorable than a Confederate general. And to the students of Campbell High School, who are fighting for racial equity in Cobb schools, I stand with you. Our work is not finished. This is the start of our Georgia and I truly believe that we’ve changed the game forever.”

To watch Heller’s entire speech, click here.

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