Atlanta Board of Education chairman Jason Esteves said votes cast by telephone by a board member during a March 4 board meeting were legal, after a recently filed ethics complaint contends the votes should have been made in-person. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC
Photo: Vanessa McCray
Photo: Vanessa McCray

Complaint says APS board member’s votes by phone weren’t proper

An opponent of Atlanta Public Schools’ controversial school-improvement plan filed an ethics complaint alleging the school board’s March approval was illegal because one member 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 March 14, ten days after the board narrowly voted to proceed with the initial phase of the “Excellent Schools Project.”

An attorney for the district said the telephone vote was proper.

The board’s 5-3 approval gave the go-ahead to continue to develop the plan, which could eventually include 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.

Board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown, who called into the meeting and voted by telephone from France, was among the five members who voted in favor of proceeding with the plan. She also cast a key vote earlier in the meeting, when a motion to table the project failed by a 4-4 vote. Briscoe Brown was among those who voted against tabling the measure.

Hayes-Tavares contends Briscoe Brown shouldn’t have been allowed to vote by phone, describing it as an “illegal vote” based on APS policies and the state’s open-meeting laws.

“The public’s ability to witness how our elected officials vote on public matters is the cornerstone of our democracy,” she wrote.

APS provided a copy of the complaint to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday after the newspaper filed an open-records request last week.

The district’s general counsel D. Glenn Brock 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. Those conditions were met during the meeting, he said.

Briscoe Brown said she’s only called in to one other meeting, in spring of 2017. She watched the meeting this month through an online livestream, Brock said, and her phone was connected to a microphone so she could join the board’s discussion.

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

Board chairman Jason Esteves called the complaint “frivolous” and said such complaints are “a waste of taxpayer dollars and resources.”

“The fact that this complaint is being filed by someone — a former school board candidate turned frequent critic of the board — who knows better and should know what the law is since she cites it in her complaint, makes it even worse,” he said.

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.

Hayes-Tavares said it was difficult for those in attendance to follow exactly what the board was voting on because the wording changed from what initially appeared in the board packet.

“The least they can do is do their business in the public eye,” she said.

The ethics commission, an independent panel that receives and hears complaints about potential violations, has not set a date to consider the voting complaint.

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