APS Board Candidate, Steven Lee, Touted Diploma Mill PhD
(APN) ATLANTA — Steven Lee, a community leader who serves at-risk youth primarily in Southwest Atlanta, is running for the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education District 5 seat.
The District 5 seat is being vacated by LaChandra Butler Burks, who is not seeking reelection. As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Raynard Johnson is also running for the seat.
Lee has an impressive record of working with youth as Executive Director of the Unity Network and Counseling Center (UNCC).
“We focus on at-risk youth, job development, job training, GED, working with at-risk youth from the age of eight and nine years old, up,” Lee said. UNCC has two programs: a Guiding Hand Mentoring Program, for teenage boys; and In the Zone, for elementary school kids.
But APN can reveal that Lee appears to have previously misrepresented his educational credentials in documents prepared for the City of Atlanta.
Lee’s current campaign materials do not mention that he previously referred to himself as Dr. Lee, and as having a PhD in Counseling Psychology.
However, three resolutions passed by the City Council of Atlanta, appointing him to three different boards in 2009, refer to him as Dr. Lee, in the captions of the respective legislation, as well as in supporting documents, including in Lee’s Curriculum Vitae (CV), or resume.
Then-Mayor Shirley Franklin; Councilmembers Felicia Moore (District 9), CT Martin (District 10), Joyce Sheperd (District 12), and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large); and then-Councilman Jim Maddox (District 11) each signed letters of recommendation referring to Lee as Dr. Lee. Moore, Martin, and Willis signed two such letters.
In 2009, the Council appointed Lee to the Beltline Affordable Housing Advisory Board, the Hollowell/M. L. King Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee, and the Zoning Review Board, at least in part of the basis of his purported educational credentials.
When first asked about the references to him as Dr. Lee in the City legislation, Lee told APN that his PhD was from Belford University.
Belford University is a diploma mill that–prior to its closure in 2012–offered online, nonaccredited college degrees, for a fee of several hundred dollars, to individuals for their previous life experiences. While it maintained a post office box in Humble, Texas, the degrees were mailed from the United Arab Emirates.
According to various news reports, at least two people in the US–including a fire chief in New Hampshire and a faculty member at Pensacola State College in Florida–have lost jobs based on their representations of having earned an advanced degree from Belford.
Yet, Lee listed on his CV, which he submitted to the Atlanta City Council, that he actually had an MPA and PhD from Bedford University, spelled with a d instead of an l. He stated in his CV that he attended Bedford University from 1988 to 1990 for his MPA, and from 1990 to 2005 for his PhD.
When APN noted in a follow-up interview with Lee that Bedford University is located in the United Kingdom, and asked whether he attended Bedford or Belford, Lee reiterated that he attended Belford–the diploma mill, not the UK school–and said that the misstatement on the CV must have been a typographical error.
As for the PhD from Belford, or the Dr. title which he no longer references, Lee told APN, “That’s not something we focus on. That’s not what we do.”
“I don’t announce the degree nor am I running on the degree. I am running on my experience and my commitment to the kids,” Lee wrote in a follow-up text message.
Lee has previously run twice for State House. He challenged State Rep. Sheila Jones (D-Atlanta) for the Democratic nomination for what was then the District 44 seat in 2006 and 2010.
As reported by APN at the time, in 2012, Lee made public comment to the Atlanta City Council in favor of legislation proposed by Councilman Willis that would have lessened the independence of the City’s Ethics Officer.
The legislation would have changed the way that the Ethics Board nominates a new Ethics Officer. Currently, the Board nominates someone, and the Council votes them up or down. Under Willis’s legislation, the Board would have been tasked with nominating three candidates, and the Council would be able to select one of the three.
Numerous citizens and Councilmembers opposed the legislation, which was nearly unanimously filed [or discarded of by the Council]. Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11) was the only one to oppose filing the legislation; even Willis had backed off of his own legislation after the pushback from the public.
Only two citizens, Dave Walker and Steven Lee, supported the legislation in their comments.
Lee moved to Atlanta fifteen years ago from Chicago, Illinois, although he was born in Mississippi.
Since then, he has served in numerous community leadership capacities, including as President of the Board of Directors of People TV, which for the last few years has been facing financial challenges and currently survives only by virtue of City funding.
He currently still serves on the ZRB and on the Hollowell/MLK TADAC. He says he does not believe serving on TADAC poses a conflict of interest with his running for APS BOE, but that he will step aside from TADAC if necessary.
He is also President of the Martin Luther King Merchant’s Association.
Lee says People TV’s current troubles should not be a reflection on his leadership there.
“No, I don’t think so. Our funding was still intact with Comcast, while I was serving. These issues came about after my tenure. These issues weren’t issues that we were facing at that time,” Lee said.
“That [negotiations with Comcast] wasn’t handled by the Board. [Then-CEO] Charlotte Engel– we didn’t attend a lot of the meetings for Comcast, and all those things–that was our CEO, she would come back and she would report on what was going on. It wasn’t a problem. It started at the very end of them discussing them [issues with Comcast] and talking about it,” he said.
Lee says that during his service on the ZRB he has fought to protect and preserve neighborhoods. Thus, he opposed the recent proposal by Councilman Alex Wan (District 6) that would have sought to strip away the grandfathered-in status of adult entertainment establishments on Cheshire Bridge Road.
The ZRB and the Council voted down the measure earlier this year. Lee did not participate in the ZRB vote because he was absent from the meeting, but Lee says he is the one who made a motion to table the vote at an earlier ZRB meeting.
“I was the person that actually tabled – I felt as though there was not a representation of the community there at the meeting. I was out of town for the final vote,” he said, adding that, if present, he would have voted no.
As for the Hollowell/MLK TADAC, Lee says that the Atlanta Development Authority disbanded TADAC after only three meetings, but that they are now reinstating the organization.
Lee says he was elected President of the TADAC, but that he had no recourse when it was disbanded because he did not have contact information for any members other than the Vice President; and that the Secretary of the TADAC worked for the ADA. Lee says he did not get a response from the ADA as to why the TADAC was disbanded.
As previously reported by APN, a recent audit of the TADs by City Auditor Leslie Ward and her staff, revealed gross mismanagement of the TADs by the ADA. As for the Hollowell/MLK TAD, this is one of the TADs where little to no money had been spent on community improvement, but most, if not all, of it had been spent on ADA overhead and salaries.
The TADAC, which had some community oversight authority, had clearly failed in its role.
“We just received a letter – a month ago – reactivating the MLK/Hollowell Advisory Cmte. I’m not sure what happened – they just pulled away from it. People with the City [ADA] said it was going to be disbanded. They met three times, pulled away from it, now they’re bringing it back up,” he said.
“I was elected as President of the Advisory Board [TADAC], when it was in place the last time… We got a notice, until further notice, the advisory board will be put on hold,” he said.
“We really never had an opportunity to get that work done. That Board never got off the ground – we had three meetings and it was put on hold,” he said.
LEE’S POSITIONS ON APS ISSUES
Lee says that if he had been on the APS Board in 2010, he would not have voted to change the rules regarding how to change the Chair of the Board. In 2010, the so-called “Gang of Five” Board Members changed the rules to make it easier to change the Chair; they then ousted Butler Burks and replaced her with then-Board Member Khaatim El (District 2).
“Given the information I have at this point, I would have voted to not change the rules… I’m not sure of all the information and all the processes they went through. From where I was standing at the time, I didn’t support the rule change then. If I was on the Board at the current time, my gut is I would’ve voted in opposition of changing the rule,” he said.
As for charter schools, Lee says he supports them in certain cases but believes they should not replace traditional public schools.
“I believe that charter schools are a tool in the toolbelt. It is not the toolbelt, it is a tool in toolbelt,” he said.
“I don’t believe they should replace public schools. I’m a believer in the public school system. I believe we should have a world class public schools system. Charter schools should not take place of the public school system,” he said.
Lee said he is very concerned about the dropout rate, which he says hovers around a staggering fifty percent of APS students. At some APS schools, the graduation rate is in the thirtieth and fortieth percentiles.
He says APS needs to offer more options for students to stay in school; that APS needs to focus on making classwork more relevant to students’ lives, and less relevant to standardized testing; and that APS needs to offer more options to prepare students for entering the workforce, as not all students are likely to attend college.
He also is a proponent of expanding access to early childhood education within APS.