[Update: The Cobb County School District responded to our inquiries for this article after the article was submitted, but before it was published. As editor I should have caught that and included the response in the article. I apologize to both readers and the Supt. Ragsdale for the oversight. The response is included at the bottom of the article — Larry Johnson]
Some faculty and parents, angry about the removal of board member comments from Cobb school board meetings, say it was done to silence the newest members of the board, Jaha Howard and Charisse Davis, for their willingness to address racism and equity issues in the county.
Jennifer Susko, a school counselor for CCSD, told the Courier that Howard and Davis are the only board members willing to address requests to hire a chief equity officer.
“Prior to the elections…when we spoke to the board regarding systemic racism or issues in schools involving bias or teaching that is not culturally responsive/sustaining, we were met by complete silence…As soon as Dr. Howard and Mrs. Davis started to respond to community and constituent concerns, precisely as they were elected to do, Mr. Chastain eliminated their opportunity to do so at board meetings,” Susko said.
Teacher Julie Masenthin said she was outraged by the decision. “Shutting down board members from speaking about what they hear and witness in their communities is akin to not only suppression, but oppression…Lest anyone be offended my use of the word oppression, you have only to attend to the racial divide across which these votes were made.”
Now that Davis has had time over the fall break to process the unexpected move, she calls it a turning point.
“You are silencing, essentially, half of your school board…and just as Mr. Chastain hears from people in his community who think the board comments are problematic, we hear from people all the time who want the county to acknowledge things that they are facing,” Davis said on the phone. ”I think it speaks to a larger issue of not accepting the new voices on the school board.”
Chair David Chastain opened the Sept. 19 work session discussion by saying he thinks the board “works as a team for the most part…but then we get to board comments…and that’s where I’d say we are not governing with excellence.”
He suggested doing away with the board member comments, adding that they can be made via other avenues such as social media. Board member David Banks followed by reading a motion to remove comments.
Howard asked for examples of problematic comments, to which Chastain said they have moved away from school matters to politics, adding that he’s been concerned for a while. David Morgan suggested creating a policy to reign in the comments rather than do away with them all together, but Chastain responded that he wasn’t comfortable with the chair being arbiter of what’s appropriate.
Davis said, “We have board members who talk about football games and police officers around the country…I just find it very suspicious that at this point that we’re trying to reign in board comments when they’ve been going on all these years and the topics have been problematic.”
Randy Scamihorn, who often uses his time to recognize police officers around the country who’ve died in the line of duty, responded he was fine with doing away with comments. He also denied what he called “the accusation” that four members of the board had already discussed the issue, leaving out the other three, though the fact that Banks read his motion to remove comments from a prepared piece of paper has raised some eyebrows.
“This particular thing just showed up on the agenda with decisive ready-to-go action from people who typically aren’t very decisive, ready-to-go action…Four people are not surprised by this. Three people may be,” Howard said.
Morgan made a motion for an amendment that would have allowed for board comment to continue, but would have required the creation of a policy to govern content. It failed 4-3 with Morgan, Howard and Davis voting in favor, and Scamihorn, Wheeler, Banks and Chastain voting against it.
Howard then made a motion to table the discussion for one month to consider the issue. It also failed 4-3.
The tone became increasingly tense over the duration of the hour-and-a-half discussion until Howard made a motion that Chastain allow board members who make “good” comments to continue. Chastain responded that his motion was frivolous and called for the vote on the original motion. The 4-3 vote to remove comments fell again along party lines.
Julia Speer, a former CCSD teacher, said, “I think it’s absurd to say it’s a coincidence. The only reason it’s happening now is because they don’t like what’s going on in regard to people of color and shining a light on that specific topic.”
Speer, now retired, said she made multiple requests for diversity training without success. She also said she once set up a one-on-one meeting with Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, but learned he contacted her principal in advance of the meeting, which she called “unethical.”
“I think that speaks volumes – the fact that I was fearful and waited,” she said of her decision to wait until retirement to become more vocal.
Vice-Chair Brad Wheeler told the Courier he disagreed with the assertion that they were silencing dissenters. “All board members can speak on agenda items of board business/policies. They also may express their views on social media and conversations with others. There is an appropriate time and place for everything.”
Chastain responded, “There is no policy governing our board comments that have traditionally been held at the end of the meeting, and these comments were meant to be collegial and to identify and celebrate certain individuals or events in our different posts that we’d like people to know about. It’s not required by regulation to be included…no one is being censored. If any of our board members feel there’s a need to change, improve or write a new policy, the board meeting is when that can be brought up.”
At the Aug. 22 meeting during board member comments, Davis commented on Gwinnett County School’s hiring of a chief equity officer, saying “I really hope, as a district, we don’t get left behind in that conversation.
At the same meeting, Howard talked about the 1619 400-year-anniversary of slavery, the emotional effects of gun violence on students in reference to the El Paso and Dayton tragedies, and Cobb families living in the area affected by Sterigenics emissions of ethylene oxide.
Rob Madayag, a parent and attorney who has been vocal about bullying issues in the county, said, “This is how CCSD operates. Silence dissenters. Place head in sand. Act like nothing is wrong.”
A spokesperson for the Cobb County School District offered the following response to our questions.
“It’s important to the Superintendent to hear directly from staff and he makes himself available for one-on-one conversations often. As a staff member, Ms. Speer did reach out to the Superintendent on multiple occasions to share links to various art websites, to share “art”, and, in her most recent email from 2018, complimented the Superintendent’s ‘words and actions which speak to your (his) integrity and commitment.’ The District has no record of any requests or communication similar to what you’ve described.”
Previous meetings are available for streaming here.
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.