Staff Editorial: Antwon Stephens should step down

On his incomplete application to fill the District 2 Clarke County Board of Education seat, Antwon Stephens made the claim that he was a Clarke County native and “Cedar Shoals High School 2014.” BluePrints Magazine uncovered that Stephens’ application was incomplete, lacking the required two letters of support, and that Stephens did not actually graduate from Cedar Shoals.

As was discussed by board members who voted for Stephens, his graduation was integral to his appointment. 

A call for Stephens’ removal, whether by motions by the Board or by resignation, is not because he was not a high school graduate. In fact, the inclusion of a voice who was failed by the education system, specifically this county, could be valuable. The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement reports that only 44.4% of graduates are college and career ready. Moreover, Stephens says he attended Ashworth College and James Madison High School for online programs.

The issue with Stephens’ current tenure on the BOE is that he earned the seat under false pretenses. Maybe Stephens did in fact leave Cedar because of health issues. He says he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a rare illness, at the age of 18, but health problems throughout his childhood forced him to unenroll because of attendance issues. Still, health problems do not excuse the fact that he misled this community on his application, in his speech, and in his political career.

As the community scrutinizes Stephens’ political past, scandals continue to surface. 

Looking into Stephens’ financial reports from the 2016 Athens mayoral race, Stephens claimed that he raised over $100,000 in the only campaign disclosure he has filed on time. After BluePrints’ revelations and reporting by Flagpole and The Red & Black locally, Stephens then admitted that those documents were falsified in a Facebook post saying, “Numbers from my run for mayor of Athens were fabricated as a publicity stunt to raise awareness to the issues that I cared about in my local community and to fight for election fairness in a race where lower tier candidates were being unfairly excluded.”

When BluePrints first published our report that Stephens did not graduate from Cedar, Stephens went on the defensive in the Clarke County School District Town Hall Facebook group that boasts over 2,500 members. He called our work a “hit piece,” and defended his wording of “Cedar Shoals High School 2014,” saying that he referenced the Class of 2014 because those were his peers.

In his absence at his first meeting, Board president Dr. Lakeisha Gantt read a statement from Stephens where he cited “sickness and stress” stemming in part from the “vulture press.” This perception of our reporting only means that Stephens does not regret his actions, but he does regret that he got caught. It’s a response reminiscent of the end of every Scooby-Doo episode where the villain exclaims, “I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

That same week, another member of the Board criticized our work in an interview, saying that the role of journalists is not to shape public opinion, and that we did not present the whole truth because Stephens continued his education. In fact, we included his claims that he attended National High School, James Madison High School and Ashworth College, all online schools who have declined our requests to verify Stephens’ attendance or graduation. We reported the facts, without bias, like journalists should do. We know now that The Red & Black was reporting the same story, so does the fact that Cedar Shoals students broke the news somehow change the facts?

It is difficult to accept the argument that Stephens did not intentionally mislead the board on his educational background. Even if Stephens’ explanation for his wording — the fact that he grew up with the class of 2014 — is honest, he should have realized how his wording would be interpreted. He should have been more specific, honest and transparent.

Embroiled in controversy amidst a mid-contract buyout negotiation with former Superintendent Dr. Demond Means and the Cognia investigation that took place at the end of January, the BOE and the district as a whole are now further embarrassed. Why was he considered for the appointment with an incomplete application? Did Board members run a quick Google search of his name? If even one did, why did he or she not speak up?

CCSD currently awaits Cognia’s feedback, possibly at risk of eventually losing our accreditation after formal complaints were filed over disputes between Dr. Means and the Board. With the publicized drama, it makes sense that the Board may have rushed the appointment of the vacant District 2 seat, disregarding any form of a vetting process for the candidates. 

As one online commenter and Town Hall Forum moderator Liza Jackson said, “These issues should have been avoided and probably could have been sussed out easily but it’s a lot harder to catch little stones when people are constantly throwing boulders at you.” Board members are under intense pressure, and while that should be acknowledged, it should not and will not change our reporting or the facts.

The continued scrutiny of the Board and district leaders could also add further incentive for families to move their students away from CCSD. 

At the age of 17 as head of the Athens Tea Party Patriots, Stephens attempted to organize a convention, but he was eventually accused of theft by deception after failing to pay the keynote speaker, Crystal Wright, $10,000 for speaking fees and travel expenses. She never received a refund or payment, and Wright called Stephens “a con artist” in an e-mail to Flagpole.

Additionally, Mr. Stephens views himself as a politician, and while I’m sure he wants the best for students, his tenure on the Board could just be a stepping stone towards larger positions. He already ran for mayor and Congress, however illegitimately.

Before his appointment to the Board, Stephens was running for U.S. Congress, Georgia District 9, the seat currently held by Doug Collins. Constitutionally, he is ineligible to serve. He is six months too young, but he said he was prepared for a legal battle regarding the constitutionality of his eligibility. He did not specify how exactly he plans to challenge the Constitution.

Stephens also failed to communicate his ineligibility to donors nationwide, and he claims to have raised over $25,000. Only Stephens knows how much money he raised. To this date, he has not filed the proper fundraising disclosure for 2019-20. Stephens pledged to donate $5,000 of those donations to his primary competitor Devin Pandy, but Pandy announced that he would not accept those donations from Stephens, recommending that the money be returned to donors.

Stephens did not drop out of his congressional race because he heard the call to serve in his school district. He dropped out because he knew he would lose. First, he would have to defeat a more experienced Pandy in the primary. After that, he would have faced a Republican in a deep red district, running for a seat he is prohibited from maintaining. 

That all said, the backlash toward Stephens has also been over the top at times. Stephens made mistakes, but personal backlash is unproductive and harmful. After posting his defense and explanation to Facebook, Stephens deleted comments posted to his page before announcing that he would be committing himself for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. We take him at his word, and we hope he gets the help he says he needs. 

It is easy for emotions to take control when discussing the education of children. It feels especially raw in a community such as Athens where poverty and student achievement are racially skewed beyond circumstantial explanation. Still, political discourse is not always productive and beneficial. Accountability and community concern are admirable, but much of the backlash toward Stephens just tosses gasoline on the fire. He should be criticized, but adults can choose how to express those thoughts carefully.

At this moment, it would be best for Stephens to step down to best demonstrate leadership in the community he wants to serve.

We need accountability. We need reliability. We need someone who will represent our community positively. While Stephens’ deception is not a legal disqualifier, as Dr. Gantt noted in the Board’s only response to date, it should be a moral disqualifier. 

There is too much drama already surrounding Stephens’ tenure on the Board. We must consider Stephens’ Tea Party convention debacle, his ongoing campaign finance investigations, his questionable decisions in raising money for an illegitimate run for Congress and his deception of the Board and the community. It’s hard to separate any one piece from the other at this point.

We at BluePrints hope that Stephens can take the steps he needs to better himself. With the ongoing saga of the Cognia investigation and the tensions surrounding the superintendent contract buyout, Stephens should step down. The Board should take him at his word that he wants to get better, and they should move forward with selecting a new candidate to hold the seat until a permanent representative emerges from the election in May.