Atlanta school board vacancy makes tie votes mean “no”

The Atlanta Board of Education, at only eight members strong, during its March 4, 2019, meeting.
The Atlanta Board of Education, at only eight members strong, during its March 4, 2019, meeting.

Here’s a riddle: When is a tie actually a defeat?

Answer: In an Atlanta school board vote in which the nays match the yeas.

That unusual outcome is possible now that the board, which is supposed to have nine members, is down to an even eight.

Byron Amos left the school board in January to run for the Atlanta City Council. His departure created a vacancy for the District 2 school board seat, representing central Atlanta, and a special election will be held to pick the person to fill the remainder of his term.

In the meantime, the limbo can be messy.

At its March meeting, the eight-member board was scheduled to vote on a controversial school-improvement plan called the "Excellent Schools Project."

The plan defines what conditions make for great schools and could — eventually — lead to a rating system to grade schools. Failing schools could be closed, merged or turned over to charter-school groups, though those potential consequences — as well as the rating system — have not yet been authorized by the board.

But not every board member was ready to press forward with the initial phase. Board member Leslie Grant made a motion to table the vote.

Here’s where things got interesting.

Three school board members — Michelle Olympiadis, Erika Mitchell and Kandis Wood Jackson — joined Grant in voting to table the plan. But four board members voted no.

Since the voting rules require a majority, the motion to table failed by a 4-4 tie.

The board then approved the initial phase of the improvement plan by a 5-3 vote. Olympiadis joined Nancy Meister, Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Jason Esteves and Eshe' Collins in voting for it.

Ten days after that narrow win, an opponent of the plan filed an ethics complaint alleging the approval was illegal — because Briscoe Brown voted by phone.

Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, president of Southwest and Northwest Atlanta Parents and Partners for Schools, filed the complaint with the school district’s ethics commission.

Briscoe Brown called into the meeting and voted by telephone from France. She voted against the measure to table the vote, contributing to the 4-4 tie/loss.

An attorney for the district said the telephone vote was proper. He said Georgia law allows board members to participate by phone in a meeting twice a year if they are away from the area and if the board has a quorum present in person.

Said Briscoe Brown: “It was very important to me to make sure that I was able to fully attend and participate.”

Hayes-Tavares said public officials should be present in person when voting as a matter of accountability and transparency and because not doing so harms the public trust. She said it’s particularly crucial for major votes that will guide the school district for years.

But back to the tie-vote situation. An upcoming election would return the board to its full complement but a date has yet to be set. Officials are looking at either June 18 or Sept. 17.

The Atlanta City Council, which needs to authorize the mayor to sign a contract with Fulton County to conduct the election, is expected to consider the matter at its Monday meeting.

AJC reporter Vanessa McCray covers Atlanta Public Schools. If you have a news story you’d like to share with her, please email vanessa.mccray@ajc.com.