20 People to Watch - Matt Westmoreland: The novice politician
A 26-year-old APS board member-elect gears up to pull the embattled school system out of a ditch
Shortly after Matt Westmoreland started teaching history at southeast Atlanta's Carver High School in 2010, he began hearing about dysfunction and infighting among members of the Atlanta Board of Education. After school one day, the 26-year-old Atlanta native, Grady High School graduate, and Princeton University alum drove Downtown to attend the elected body's biweekly meeting. The Virginia-Highland resident became a regular among the crowd of frustrated parent activists watching the board members bicker in the aftermath of a notorious cheating scandal.
"I got really frustrated," he says. "Far too frequently, the kids I was teaching weren't part of the conversation."
In 2012, several groups of parents urged Westmoreland to run for a soon-to-be-open seat representing Virginia-Highland, Lake Claire, and East Lake — some of Atlanta's most civically active and political neighborhoods — on the board. He started meeting with people for coffee, ignoring the warning of his grandmother, whom he sits next to every Sunday in church: "'Matt, you are going to wake up in four years being 30, single, and without accomplishing anything with your life,'" he says, laughing.
Unlike other campaigns, Westmoreland had no opposition — something political observers have chalked up to his strong résumé and community ties. Still, he attended every candidate forum and always delivered a well-practiced stump speech.
Westmoreland, who's resigning from the classroom to serve, won't be sworn in until Jan. 13, but some community members are already eyeing him as an ideal candidate for higher office. He's a young, articulate, and intelligent progressive who, on Thanksgiving vacation, read books by anti-charter school figureheads such as Diane Ravitch just to understand her views. Westmoreland says he's thought about future political runs but that right now his "passion and heart lie squarely in education, with this district in particular."
In January, he will become the youngest member of a board stacked with freshman members. The political novice will be confronted with the inevitable decisions of picking sides, crafting policies, and facing criticism from frustrated parents, in addition to dealing with scrutiny from those who think the Teach for America alum is part of a shadow conspiracy aimed at turning APS into an all-charter system. There are also the aforementioned political observers eager to see how he handles himself.
But he'll have a chance to stake a place for himself as he focuses on the board's biggest to-dos, namely picking a new superintendent and a new governance model. He'd also like to make progress on early childhood education — something APS can't address — so children entering the school system have the skills they need. Finally, he thinks it's time to rebuild the trust between parents, employees, and his fellow board members.
"You can have spirited debate representing two different sides of an issue and try to bring it to resolution, or you can just fight," he says. "I'm hopeful we can have a whole lot more of the former than the latter."