State Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell) and Cobb Board of Education member David Morgan are both Democrats representing the same geographic area. But as last month’s primaries drew near, Morgan actively campaigned against Wilkerson. Morgan advertised on his Facebook page, DecaturRegulator Morgan, that he was paying $25 an hour for people to make phone calls. Wilkerson says those calls were used to campaign in favor of Wilkerson’s opponent in the primary, Connie Taylor.
Morgan is a lobbyist for American Federation for Children, a pro-charter school nonprofit that targeted Wilkerson for his education views, which the group perceives as being against charter schools. Wilkerson also noted the group gave $20,000 in contributions to Taylor.
In the end, Wilkerson won his third term in the Georgia General Assembly after defeating Taylor, a Powder Springs resident, to represent District 38. Wilkerson won 1,487, or 61 percent, of the 2,440 votes cast. Taylor took 39 percent, or 953 votes.
But the campaigning didn’t sit well with Wilkerson, who has complained to the Cobb Board of Education about Morgan’s actions.
“It deeply troubled me when I saw a school board member lobbying at the state Capitol by advocating for additional state funds to be used for private school scholarships, rather than helping close the budget shortfalls that we were facing at the time,” Wilkerson wrote in a May 23 letter to the school board.
“While the actions by this board member do not appear to violate any conflicts of interest as outlined by Cobb County Schools, I fully believe that this is a violation of the code of ethics.”
Morgan, a former teacher, became the first black man to serve on the Cobb school board in November 2008 when he ousted veteran educator Betty Gray. He won re-election four years later.
He is the former principal of the Knowledge is Power Program Academy in Atlanta, a charter school which has since closed due to lack of funding, and has worked for the American Federation for Children since 2008.
Morgan said Wilkerson is the one with ethical issues.
“He didn’t have a problem with (my lobbying) when I appointed him to the Cobb Schools Foundation,” Morgan said.
“He didn’t have a problem with it when I appointed him to the Facilities & Technology Committee. He did not stand there and say, ‘That’s a conflict of interest.’ He did not have a problem when I was on the school board and he received a contribution from AFC, or when he filled out a survey saying he agrees with vouchers. Now he has this trumped-up, made-up, politically-driven concern. Why won’t he call it what it is — he doesn’t like me.”
So far, Wilkerson hasn’t filed a formal complaint. He said he is weiging his options because “there is not a similar situation with any other school board member in the state of Georgia.”
Wilkerson said some legislative delegations have created independent ethics committees to address possible violations by school board members, but he said he wouldn’t propose any legislation without first consulting the Cobb school board.
The advantage of an independent ethics committee, Wilkerson said, is it “allows the school board to avoid having to look into the actions of a colleague.”
Kathleen Angelucci, chair of the Cobb school board, described the process of what would happen if a complaint was filed against a board member.
“You would have to have a majority of the board that would want to proceed,” Angelucci said. “The board could vote to censure a board member, but it wouldn’t keep them from doing anything. They can still vote; they can still represent their post.”
Angelucci said there are only two ways a board member can be removed from a school board. One is for citizens to vote them out through an election or a recall vote. The other is for the governor to remove a board member. Formal complaints can be filed with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or with the Georgia Board of Education, which can then go before the governor, according to Angelucci.
Wilkerson and Morgan have a history of disagreements. In April 2012, Wilkerson filed an ethics complaint against Morgan, saying Morgan didn’t report the cost of an ad attacking Wilkerson for voting against a proposed charter school constitutional amendment.
The ad related to a charter school amendment guaranteeing the state’s power to create charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The amendment passed in November 2012.
Wilkerson also pointed out fines of $1,275 Morgan owes for filing lobbyist finance reports late.
There are other issues, according to Wilkerson, about how Morgan presents himself in public. At graduation ceremonies last month, he said Morgan was distracted.
“Staff members said he was on the phone the whole time; he was texting,” said Wilkerson. “He didn’t know what to say when he got up there (to speak).”
Morgan countered those claims, saying he had to make a speech and he was using his phone to review notes.
From Morgan’s point of view, Wilkerson is a flip-flopper who accepted money from his lobbying group, indicated he would vote a certain way and then did the opposite.
“Wilkerson was a target of American Federation for Children because he filled out a survey saying he was for the charter school amendment, received a maxed-out contribution (of $2,500) from us and turned around and voted against it,” he said. “He’s gotten amnesia. He had no problem with anything when I was appointing him to boards and working for this organization. Now he gets up here and wants to get self-righteous.”
Wilkerson said he was “misled” when he filled out the survey in 2010.
“When I completed the survey, I was going off information that David was providing me, and I can honestly say that I didn’t have the complete picture,” said Wilkerson. “Plus, the survey doesn’t reflect the conversations David and I had. I still support charter schools and parents having a choice as long as it doesn’t impact public schools. The problem is that we are underfunding the public schools and using choice as an excuse to not honor our commitment.”
He feels Morgan will have divided loyalties as long as he’s working for a charter school group and serving on a public school board.
“When students were facing fewer days at school, reduced bus service and other draconian cuts, it was clear to me that it was the responsibility of every board member to fight for every dollar they can to protect the students in their school system, not ensuring that additional state dollars go to private schools.”