Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen dipped a toe into school board politics with a $500 contribution to an incumbent running unopposed in his re-election bid.
Carstarphen donated the money in late August to the campaign of Jason Esteves, an at-large Atlanta Board of Education member. He faces no challengers on the Nov. 7 ballot.
“I know the work that he’s doing. It’s beyond the school system, and that was more the spirit with which I made the contribution,” Carstarphen said.
She highlighted his advocacy work on behalf of the district’s Hispanic students and families, including promoting college access for those students.
The superintendent noted she’s not prohibited from making donations to a candidate, though the contribution has raised some eyebrows.
“We’re still allowed to be engaged in the political process,” Carstarphen said.
The superintendent should have sent Esteves flowers or a thank you note to show her appreciation, not campaign money, said Sara Henderson, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia.
“What is the intention of the gift?” she said. “It makes it look like the superintendent is trying to influence Mr. Esteves and his vote on the school board. This is not a huge amount of money obviously, but even $2 doesn’t look good.”
Henderson said such actions can diminish the district’s work to restore public trust after a massive cheating scandal took place before Carstarphen’s hiring.
She called on Esteves to return the donation. He did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.
“APS has been through so much already. For her to do this, it negates the authority or confidence [they're] trying to build back,” Henderson said.
Esteves’ campaign made contributions in September to three of his four fellow school board members running for re-election in contested races, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosure reports which were due to be filed late last week.
His campaign gave the maximum allowable donation —$2,600 — to incumbent Eshé Collins, who is battling three challengers to retain her District 6 seat representing South Atlanta.
It also gave $2,350 to Cynthia Briscoe Brown, the incumbent running against two opponents for another at-large seat. Her campaign report also lists a $250 donation from Esteves himself.
Esteves’ campaign gave $1,000 to incumbent Byron Amos, running against two opponents to keep his District 2 seat representing central Atlanta.
Carstarphen said she has not endorsed any school board candidates and said she considers it her “duty” to educate the public about APS.
“I trust the voters of Atlanta. They are the people who voted for the people who hired me. I still know that I, in part, came here because the will of the people created this collection of [a] governance team for public education, and that team on behalf of the public picked me,” she said.
Carstarphen was hired in 2014 by a unanimous vote of the current board.