Before his first public appearance as a Clarke County Board of Education member, Antwon Stephens had already added to the upheaval within the school district’s administration.
“My story is that of a young person that is recently out of the Clarke County School District, Cedar Shoals High School Class of 2014,” Stephens said in his candidacy speech.
However, the Cedar Shoals High School graduation list for 2014, obtained by The Red & Black through an open records request, does not include Stephens’ name. The 23-year-old District 2 appointee only attended the school for two years, according to Cedar Blueprints, the Cedar Shoals student publication which broke the story.
Stephens also listed himself as a “Clarke County School District native/Cedar Shoals High School 2014” in his District 2 application materials, according to emails obtained by The Red & Black.
“I definitely apologize for it coming out that way but the graduation was not from Cedar Shoals,” Stephens told Cedar Blueprints.
The student journalists reported he attended various online schools and received a Christian Studies diploma from the Christian Leaders Institute in Chicago.
Stephens commented in the Clarke County School District Town Hall Facebook group he was “disappointed” in the article by Cedar Shoals students after it was published.
Stephens would not comment about his education to The Red & Black as of press time. Instead, he said a Feb. 7 press release would detail his graduation and political career, which has included questionable fundraising practices.
After his appointment to the school board, Stephens dropped out of the race for Georgia’s 9th Congressional District. Stephens campaigned for the seat for almost a year despite not meeting the constitutional minimum age requirement of 25 to hold a U.S. House seat.
Stephens said he wanted to set the groundwork for Democrats to be competitive in the district but admitted he “could have been better” about clarifying his campaign's goals.
The 9th District has two other Democratic candidates and three Republican candidates. Democrats have had a candidate in every 9th District race since 2000 except for two, 2016 and 2010, according to Ballotpedia.
“I don’t think it was misleading there, especially because we were prepared to ... take that fight on, legally,” said Stephens, referring to the constitutional age requirement.
Stephens said he raised about $28,000 from mostly small donors but did not publicize his ineligibility to hold the position. A Jan. 14 tweet from Stephens said he raised just under $20,000. The tweet was posted two days before he was appointed to the school board and ended his Georgia congressional campaign.
He said his largest donation — $250 — came from actress Alyssa Milano, who does not live in the district. He did not put up a campaign website before he left the race, and most of his tweets focus on beating “extremist Doug Collins” rather than outlining policy points.
Though Stephens dropped out of the race before the Jan. 31 Federal Elections Commission deadline to file his campaign contributions for 2019, the FEC requires candidates who raise more than $5,000 by the end of the year to disclose receipts and disbursements.
Stephens registered as a House candidate in March 2019 but did not register a campaign committee until December. This violated campaign finance law stating that candidates must register committees within 10 days of designating the committee, according to a Jan. 26 FEC letter addressed to Stephens for Georgia, his campaign committee.
Stephens’ organization has until March 2 to respond to the FEC letter with clarification or the FEC may conduct an audit of the committee or take other enforcement action.
Candidates who drop out of a race must return campaign funds to contributors, give the money to charity or use it for other political purposes, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said in an email. They cannot keep the funds.
Stephens said the money raised by the campaign will be split to support Democratic Congressional candidate Devin Pandy and local elections in the district. He will also save some of the money to run in the same district two to four years from now.
Stephens has not yet contributed to Pandy’s campaign, but Pandy said in an email Stephens promised him a $5,000 donation “as early as next week.”
The 9th District was not the first campaign Stephens ended prematurely. In 2018, he dropped out of the Athens mayoral race, citing health problems. For that race, he raised more than $100,000 in mostly small donations. By that time in the race, then-candidate and current Mayor Kelly Girtz raised just over $25,000.
Stephens declined to comment on what he did with that money after dropping out. He endorsed Girtz but did not donate any money to Girtz’s campaign.
At 17 years old, Stephens got into hot water after he invited the editor of a conservative blog, Crystal Wright, to speak at a Tea Party event. However, Wright said Stephens never paid her the promised $10,000 speaker fee, and the crowd of 2,500 expected attendees turned out to be 75 people, according to a 2013 police report.
After the news about Stephens’ high school record broke on Jan. 31, Board President LaKeisha Gantt released a statement saying she and Vice President Tawana Mattox are talking with Stephens, who was appointed by a 4-3 vote.
“While the unfolding of events and information is not optimal, it is not a legal disqualifier,” Gantt wrote. “Being a high school graduate is not a requirement for serving on the Board of Education and the Affidavit signed does not contain any representation about being a graduate.”
Michael Pruett, the school district’s attorney, said there are no policies for vetting a school board candidate other than signing the affidavit.
Stephens said he plans to run for a full term to represent school board District 2 when the seat is up for election in May. He is the third person in this position in the last two years. Frances Berry was appointed by the board in February 2019 but resigned for personal reasons in November. Before that, Vernon Payne held the position for 40 years but stepped down because of health issues.