Muscogee County School Board votes to hire member's daughter

Past members reflect on nepotism law

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerOctober 20, 2013 

UPDATE: With District 3 board representative Athavia Senior recusing herself, the Muscogee school board otherwise voted unanimously tonight to hire her daughter Jonai Senior as a language arts teacher at Fort Middle School.

Tonight's vote was held after district administrators explained that the daughter, 26, met all the necessary qualifications for the position, and the principal felt she was the best candidate. Critics had claimed the daughter was hired as a political payoff to the mother, who has said she played no role in her daughter's obtaining the job.

The issue made headlines after an earlier vote on personnel changes that included the daughter's hiring, as she was on a list of job candidates who were already working. Contrary to state law, Athavia Senior neglected to recuse herself from that vote, prompting the board to hold a second vote to comply with the law.

Here is today's earlier report:

They never saw it as a vote that made a difference, but former members of the Muscogee County School Board knew why it was important.

"It was just so the public would know if the school district was hiring a board member's brother-in-law," said Fife Whiteside, an attorney who always tried to keep his former colleagues in line.

"It was sometimes awkward, but it was necessary and appropriate for the way we handled it," said Mary Sue Polleys, the board chair when 20-2-58.1 of the Georgia Code was enacted 13 years ago.

From the beginning, the board worked hard to comply with a law designed to prevent nepotism and favoritism, hoping to avoid the clouds that have surrounded an action the current panel made 36 days ago.

That apparently illegal vote to hire the daughter of current board member Athavia "A.J." Senior as an English teacher on Sept. 16 comes back to the table tonight when the recommendation to put Jonai Senior to work at Fort Middle School is reconsidered.

At issue is the fact that the rookie board member voted on Superintendent David Lewis' recommendation to hire her daughter and 27 others contained on an alphabetical list of new teachers. That put Senior in violation of a law passed by the Georgia Legislature in 2000 that was directed at local boards of education:

"No local board of education shall employ or promote any person who is a member of the immediate family of any board member unless a public, recorded vote is taken on such employment or promotion as a separate matter from any other personnel matter. Any member whose immediate family member is being considered for employment shall not vote on such employment. Nothing in this Code section shall affect the employment of any person who is employed by a local school system on July 1, 2000, or who is employed by a local school system when an immediate family member becomes a member of the local board of education for that school system."

This issue isn't new. It comes up at least once a year in the spring when the board must vote to issue contracts to several thousand teachers en masse. The board has traditionally pulled the names of their family members off the list before the vote was taken.

"We just sort of knew," said Whiteside, whose wife was a teacher the entire time he was on the board. "It just happened."

"Older board members would always say, 'You need to pull this name.' We were all supposed to know the law," Polleys said.

At times, the public did not understand what the board was doing. "At the board table we are merely voting to approve the superintendent's recommendation," Polleys said. "Hiring is an issue that is supposed to be out of the hands of the board."

During the tenure of Superintendent Guy Sims, his wife was an elementary school teacher. Her name would be pulled, though he did not have a vote. She would be considered individually along with the spouses of board members David Ebron and Whiteside, the son of board member Philip Schley and the daughter of board member John Wells.

"It was organized so that you did not vote on certain ones," Whiteside said. "It was not a pure ethical conflict. It was more abstract, but the public has a right to know that."

Senior was elected last July and joined the board on Jan. 14 -- a week after her daughter applied for a teaching job in Muscogee County. The new board member said last week that voting for her daughter last month was "a rookie blunder."

That portion of the Georgia Code is stressed in training sessions for new board members conducted by the Georgia School Board Association. Senior attended one of those required workshops in November, prior to joining the local panel.

Compliance is also part of local conflict of interest policy that says members shall "comply with all applicable laws, rules, regulations and all policies regarding employment of family members."

On the afternoon before the board considered the new hires, frequent critic Frank Myers -- under the Georgia Sunshine Law -- presented the school district a Freedom of Information request asking the administration to release all files pertaining to the hiring of Jonai Senior.

A.J. Senior claims Myers has a personal vendetta against her. He helped recruit her to run against an incumbent board member, and she has said they parted ways when she refused to vote the way he wanted her to vote.

Myers and State Sen. Josh McKoon were the subjects of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry, which included perceived threats towards Senior and other board members. They were later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

Speaking to the board last week, Myers maintained Senior changed her vote on several key matters in exchange for her daughter getting a teaching job. "My daughter doesn't need my help," Senior said. "It was her dream and career -- not mine."

The hiring comes back to the board tonight as a single agenda item. Since the school year began, Jonai Senior has been teaching at Fort -- her alma mater -- on a provisional certificate along with 13 other new hires in Muscogee County. She will not receive full pay until she is fully certified. The district currently has 41 teachers working under these conditions. According to information provided by the school district, Fort Middle School had two last-minute openings for English teachers in July. Officials thought teachers displaced by school closings would take those slots. When they didn't, a list of 28 applicants was considered.

Principal Sonja Coaxum interviewed five candidates -- including Jonai Senior, who has a degree in English from Columbus State University. Two teachers were hired. Senior is enrolled in a graduate program at CSU and must complete six or more semester hours toward her teaching program.

Neither of the two former board members would comment on the current situation, but Whiteside said one thing is certain: "Disclosure is the key."

Related stories:

McKoon blasts accusers, plans legislation to end Georgia school districts' no-bid contracts

Tim Chitwood: Unplugging the Muscogee school board

GBI: Messages show extent of personal spats between Myers, Muscogee County School Board members

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