Facebook-posting education official loses his job

The Georgia education official who posted online about race, religion and partisan politics was out of a job Tuesday, as his boss, state school Superintendent Richard Woods, said he was “disheartened and disgusted” by what he saw.

Jeremy Spencer, a former science teacher from Camden County on the South Georgia coast and state virtual schools teacher, was promoted last January to associate superintendent over the virtual schools program by Woods soon after he took over as Georgia’s top elected education official. Woods’ announcement of Spencer’s exit came less than an hour after a state senator demanded it in a speech at the Capitol Tuesday morning. Spencer’s brother, a state lawmaker, said Spencer would learn “wisdom” from his “unfortunate” activity on Facebook and the “uncomfortable” experience that ensued.

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who’d read about Spencer’s online activity in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog, said in the Senate that the content posted on Spencer’s personal Facebook page was “vile” and full of “meanness.” Fort, who is black, was particularly disturbed by a response to one of Spencer’s posts about President Barack Obama that Spencer allowed to remain on the site for more than two months, until the whole page was pulled down Monday after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Woods’ office about it.

On Nov. 19, Spencer posted a news cartoon about Obama’s response to concerns about Muslim refugees and terrorism. Someone responded with this note and a photograph: “Only one way to solve the problem; impeach and … .” The black and white photograph showed an African-American man hanging from a tree.

Fort said after his speech that he was “concerned about what kind of atmosphere there is at DOE.”

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The Georgia Department of Education has no policy on personal Facebook accounts. Spencer made his DOE role clear on his account and discussed educational topics there, blurring the line between his private life and public position. DOE spokesman Matt Cardoza said Spencer is the first high-ranking DOE official to be removed over social media as far as he knows, and he’s worked there just over a decade. Technically, Spencer resigned, he said.

Woods can hire five employees without board approval. He didn’t exercise all five hires. Of those he did hire, only one, chief of staff Matt Jones, remains. Another high-ranking hire, Cindy Morley, who was chief officer of governmental affairs, is no longer in the job. She was politically connected, having run state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler’s election campaign in 2010.

State school board chairman Mike Royal said the board did not vote to hire Spencer because he was already an employee of the virtual school program. Woods exercised his authority to promote him, Royal said, adding that Spencer was doing a good job but left Woods no option but to remove him. “It was cut and dried,” he said.

Although DOE lacks a policy about private social media accounts, Royal said he is confident Spencer could be terminated under the department’s ethics policy. He said he asked a human resources administrator to research whether there is a statewide policy on personal social media use.

Local school districts and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which certifies educators, have policies. Teachers have been fired for content on their social media pages despite claims that the firings violated their First Amendment rights. The PSC warns educators not to “post anything on a website that you would not post on the front door of the school.”

Spencer was politically active. He ran for city council in St. Marys in 2011, then worked on Woods’ 2014 election campaign and contributed $635 to it. He was paid $138,000 at the DOE.

He could not be reached for comment, but his brother, a state representative, responded with an emailed statement after the AJC tried to contact him at the Capitol.

Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, said he wouldn’t judge Woods’ decision on this “very uncomfortable topic,” and said his brother’s online posts were “unfortunate.”

He also said some of what went online was “taken out of context through the prism of political correctness.” But he didn’t defend the posted responses from others, including “incendiary images,” likely a reference to the lynching photo.

“I do know my brother’s heart, and I do believe he will gain a tremendous amount of wisdom from this uncomfortable experience and grow as a person in the future. He is my brother, and I will help him on this journey to greater wisdom,” Spencer wrote. His district is in Camden County, where white voters outnumbered black voters 4-1 in 2014, according to the Secretary of State. “While it will be easy for others to invoke guilt by association,” Spencer added, “rest assured I will continue to represent all of my constituents like I have demonstrated in the past in a colorblind manner.”

Charles Trader, a middle school math teacher in Camden County, knows Jeremy Spencer both as a teacher and a politician. Trader was running for re-election to the St. Marys city council when Spencer ran with a bloc of candidates in a heated race that got personal. They both lost.

As a teacher, Trader said he knows he must be careful about what he says publicly. He said Spencer and his brother lack “filters.”

“The Spencers speak what they feel,” said Trader, who taught at a different school than Spencer but whose daughter was in Spencer’s science class. Trader said Spencer never let tension over their political battles affect his attitude toward Trader’s daughter in the classroom. “I thought he was a good teacher,” Trader said.

Otha Thornton, who was the U.S. PTA president last year and lives in Georgia, followed the reports about Spencer’s Facebook activity Monday and applauded Woods’ decision to ask him to leave, in lieu of firing. Thornton, who is black, was offended by Spencer’s note with a post of a photo of a football halftime show with African-American performers who got into a fight. Spencer wrote only one word: “subculture.” The use of that “label” led Thornton to wonder about racial prejudice.

“I was like, wow, this is really bold that this associate superintendent of education thinks that he can put these things out there,” said Thornton. “Does that impact how you determine instruction for our kids?”

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