Remembering DeKalb’s Jim McMahan

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Jim McMahan

I say this with love in my heart: there are a small number of people I can blame for drawing me into politics and public policy in DeKalb, for convincing me that it would be worth it. We lost one of them today.

Jim McMahan, a former school board member, died in a boating accident in Alabama this morning, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His 17-year-old daughter lost her right leg in the accident. He was 53.

McMahan represented Tucker, Smoke Rise and the Briarlake and Lakeside areas of DeKalb County on the school board for the last six years. He chose not to run for re-election, looking for more time with his family — a wish that was entirely sincere. Because he was almost always entirely sincere, stunningly and surprisingly so.

I got to know him in 2012, when the DeKalb school board was in utter turmoil. I spoke publicly in support of replacing the board, which drew some attention and effectively started my days as a public scold. Jim was glad to hear someone else saying so aloud.

A year or so later, he ran for the school board, in a race I described as “The Most Important School Board Race in Georgia.” His work directly contributed to saving the accreditation of the DeKalb school district, pulling the system from disaster. If you live in DeKalb County, I figure you owe about 25 percent of your home value to his work and the others who wrestled catastrophe off the ledge.

He wanted the schools to become a charter system, and became the vote that flipped the board with his victory. Though DeKalb adopted the change on paper, it has never been able to effectively implement the change in practice.

McMahan served as the board’s vice chair for much of his tenure. He was a passionate advocate for integrity in public service. He was a graduate of Leadership DeKalb and served on a task force to review the county’s charter in 2014.

He was a very good friend, an unstintingly honest public servant and a real leader. I have had hours-long conversations with him over the years. He talked about writing a book. He was also deeply supportive over the years, not just of me but of dozens of other people trying to make changes here.

This is terrible in ways that I can only fail to describe. I am in grief and shock, and I’m absolutely certain that I am not alone.

Bring his family close to your heart tonight. I can’t imagine this loss is bearable without help.


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