Frequent Muscogee County school board critic Frank Myers alleges a board member he recruited to run for office last year scuttled her own campaign promises in return for the district’s hiring her daughter.
His accusing District 3 representative Athavia “A.J.” Senior of being swayed in her board decisions by her daughter’s hiring is the latest salvo in Myers’ ongoing battle to get the board to end its custom of employing the Columbus law firm Hatcher-Stubbs for its legal services. Myers maintains the firm overcharges the school district and should not each year be guaranteed the board’s business.
This year some board members accused Myers and Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon of threatening them if they didn’t vote to open the district’s legal services to other firms. Senior and board members John Wells and Beth Harris alleged that McKoon threatened to withhold state funds if they didn’t do what he and Myers wanted.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reviewed those accusations at the request of board chairman Rob Varner and then-interim school Superintendent John Phillips. The GBI turned its findings over to the state attorney general, who found Myers and McKoon did nothing illegal.
During Monday’s board work session, Myers while speaking on the meeting’s public agenda said that when he recruited Senior as a candidate for his 2012 “Boot the Board” movement to oust incumbent board members, she knew opening the district’s legal services to other law firms was part of the political agenda. But after taking office this past January, she voted to keep Hatcher-Stubbs.
He alleged her change of heart was the result of her daughter Jonai Senior’s being hired as an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Fort Middle School. He said the daughter applied for that position just a week before the Jan. 14 vote on Hatcher-Stubbs.
“Ms. Senior’s daughter has no teaching experience and does not hold a certificate to teach, yet all of the sudden there seemed to be a place for her to teach language arts at Fort Middle School. Go figure,” Myers said. Senior countered that her daughter has always excelled in her endeavors and didn’t need her mother’s help to get Fort Principal Sonja Coaxum’s recommendation she be hired on a provisional basis, without a teaching certificate. District administrators maintain hiring teachers who haven’t yet obtained a certificate is not unusual, particularly if the position to be filled is a “critical need.”
David Lewis, whom the board named superintendent July 23, said the practice is common among school districts trying to fill positions before classes start.
Responding to Myers, Athavia Senior said: “My daughter has always excelled in education. She is a smart young lady, and the fact that she was hired without a teaching certificate only proves how smart and outgoing and achieving she is.”
The daughter began pursuing courses to become a teacher before her mother was elected, the mother said. “The fact that I’m on the board, that has nothing to do with it,” she said.
After Monday’s board meeting, Senior in an interview said she never discussed her daughter’s application with Phillips or with Lewis. Myers has records indicating the Fort principal recommended Senior’s daughter for the job on July 29. Jonai Senior has a four-year degree and is pursuing a master’s degree in education at Columbus State University. Instructors sent the district letters recommending Jonai Senior for the job.
Her hiring first raised controversy Sept. 16 when her mother voted for a list of new hires that included her daughter. Board members are supposed to recuse themselves from such votes because of the apparent conflict of interest. Athavia Senior did not.
The Georgia law on such matters reads: “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 board member whose immediate family member is being considered for employment shall not vote on such employment.”
During Monday’s board work session, Athavia Senior said her voting to hire her daughter was an oversight, a “learning error” resulting from her inexperience as a board member.
Because of that error, the board will have to vote again on the employment list next week, so that Athavia Senior may recuse herself.
Myers alleged that once her daughter applied for a job, Athavia Senior voted in “lockstep” with whatever Phillips wanted, including his recommending that the district build a $500,000 records storage facility, and that it cut in-house janitorial services and bid that out.
“And don’t let this get past you: The janitors have to bid for their work; the lawyers don’t,” Myers added.
Senior said she appreciated Myers’ support last year as she unseated incumbent James Walker, but it was the voters, not Myers, who elected her, and she is not obligated to follow his agenda.