Cognia reverses on Cobb County School District special review findings citing factual error

Dr. Mark Elgart addressed the Cobb School Board as members of Watching the Funds-Cobb held up signs expressing frustration over what they call a lack of financial transparency and questionable spending.Dr. Mark Elgart addressed the Cobb School Board as members of Watching the Funds-Cobb held up signs expressing frustration over what they call a lack of financial transparency and questionable spending. (photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

By Rebecca Gaunt

In an special called Cobb School Board meeting Monday, Dr. Mark Elgart, CEO of Cognia, informed Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and board members that the findings of the special review performed last August are “no longer valid.”

The follow-up to the review, originally scheduled for December, will no longer take place. CCSD will undergo accreditation review again in 2024.

Elgart told the board that the district’s accreditation was never in jeopardy.

In a letter received by Ragsdale last week, Elgart wrote, “…it appears the Special Review Team did not adequately contextualize or incorporate factual evidence provided by the School District.”

The letter (which was posted after the meeting on the district’s website) also states:

…it is clear the School District has comprehensive policies relating to procurement and has won external awards for its purchasing and procurement processes… The findings in the report related to procurement policies and procedures, allocation and use of CARES funds, and the purchase of the UV system and hand sanitizers were not an accurate reflection of the evidence provided. There are no concerns regarding allocation and use of resources by the Cobb County Schools.”

The district’s decisions not to use CARES funds to improve ventilation, the purchase of UV lights that malfunctioned, and an agreement with Taylor English Law Firm made without obtaining bids have been heavily scrutinized.

Elgart also said the review’s findings that the board members were not given adequate time to consider policy and procedure changes was factually incorrect and he commended the level of access provided by the district.

On Friday, board members Jaha Howard and Tre’ Hutchins voiced their frustration on Facebook Live that the letter from Elgart was not shared with board members so they could come prepared for discussion.

Elgart maintained that the part of the review regarding board governance was accurate and gave two recommendations: 1) to adhere to board policies to develop a culture of trust and cooperation among board members, employees, and the stakeholders within the district.

2) Review the Code of Ethics to develop, implement, and monitor a plan of accountability to ensure adherence of all board members in effectively and efficiently executing their established roles and responsibilities.

“The evidence indicated the board is fractured. You are divided…we see that as something that right now is contained within the walls of this room. It’s not affecting the teaching and learning in the classroom and that’s a good thing,” Elgart said.

Heather Tolley-Bauer of Watching the Funds-Cobb said she is thrilled that accreditation is still intact, but the group will continue to demand financial accountability and transparency.

“We are disappointed but not surprised they successfully got Cognia, the gold standard in school accreditation for 127 years, to give them a hall pass from their behavior or financial oversight…But really, what choice did Cognia have? Once majority board members, and no doubt the superintendent, complained, Representatives Ehrhart, Knight, Setzler, and Carson and Sen. Tippins sponsored legislation that will make Cognia…irrelevant,” she said.

After the meeting, Howard told the Courier, “This is a flex. Sometimes when you have means and power and influence, you can flex when you would like. This is obviously one of those moments. Too bad other counties and other school districts don’t have that type of power to flex when convenient.”

Board member Randy Scamihorn also spoke to the Courier after the meeting.

“I speak for myself as an individual board member…my plan is to continue what I’ve always done which is to be professional, be straightforward, respond to my constituency and to the citizens of Cobb County,” he said. “I’m all ears as far as trying to make things work better…without singling out anyone, you have to want to change, to want the information, so until that’s received, then we can proceed with how that can happen.”

The special review

Cognia completed the special review of Cobb County School District in August 2021, after receiving letters from the three Democrat board members and 50 complaints from staff and stakeholders. The results were given to the district in November 2021 and it was given a year to make improvements.

Cognia is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools in the United States and nationally.

In 2018, Democrats Charisse Davis and Howard were elected to the board, which previously had six Republicans and one Democrat. In 2020, Hutchins, a Democrat, was elected to the seat previously held by Democrat David Morgan.

Disagreements over an anti-racism resolution, schools named for Confederate leaders, and the removal of board member comments eventually led to the Republican majority changing the rule requiring the agreement of three board members to place an item for discussion on the agenda to four members. The Democrats say they have been silenced. Because the partisan line also divides the board by race, accusations of racism have been lodged since the three Black board members have frequently been unable to put items on the agenda or hold requested discussions.

Legislative bills filed in response to special review

In response to the special review findings last year, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-West Cobb) filed a bill that intervenes with how accrediting agencies evaluate school districts. State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart filed a companion bill in the House, which also sought to change Cognia’s evaluation practices.

“I don’t really care how the adults operate,” Tippins said in Monday’s Education and Youth Committee meeting.

His bill stipulates that 80% of accreditation assessment would pertain to quality of learning such as student achievement, closing achievement gaps and student progress. Financial efficiency would account for 20%.

It also requires disclosure of all requests or complaints leading to an investigation and bars the accrediting agency from offering remediation for a fee.

Tippins’ bill passed out of the committee and will now go to a vote by the full Senate.

Parent Laura Judge told the Courier, “His bill focuses on making accreditation focused on academic achievement and financial efficiency. He mentioned just this morning that board members might not always get along. Many complaints that I have heard are not just talking about board members getting along, but the silencing of stakeholders represented by three of the seven board members. I currently fall into the category of one of those stakeholders.”

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.