CCAE president calls Cobb County School District’s reading bowl comments “dishonest”

Drawing of a stack of books

By Rebecca Gaunt

Comments from the Cobb County School District denying any knowledge of staff concerns related to the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl, published in the Marietta Daily Journal Tuesday, have the Cobb County Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard fighting mad.

Hubbard has raised concerns since early August that CCSD staff members involved with the reading bowl are worried about their jobs. He first shared suggestions that would grant teachers and media specialists peace of mind directly with the district, and later went public after Due West Elementary School teacher Katie Rinderle was fired for reading “My Shadow is Purple” by Scott Stuart to her fifth grade students.

Background

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Within days of the school board’s Aug. 17 4-3 split decision to uphold Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s decision to fire Rinderle, the district announced it had pulled books unrelated to her case from libraries across the district due to sexual content. 

The district did not respond to questions from the media regarding what led to the removal or why the district policy for complaints was not followed. The same week, Libs of Tik Tok, a far-right social media handle that has targeted teachers, media specialists, and doctors for harassment, took credit for the district’s decision to remove “Flamer” by Mike Curato and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Evans.

It posted an email dated Aug. 21 from John Floresta, Cobb’s chief of strategy and accountability, in which he wrote, “Thank you for alerting us to these books. Frankly, we weren’t aware of the sexually-explicit content in these books until your email. Any book, video or lesson which contains sexually-explicit content is entirely unacceptable and have [sic] no place in our schools, period. Over the weekend we have removed both books from all of our schools.”

On Aug. 24, an email from Cobb’s Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl co-chairs Susan Buckert and Heather Kindschy announced that the competition was canceled “out of an abundance of caution and in light of recent events.”

While the district office has maintained the event is still on, Hubbard confirmed to the media that he had spoken with the steering committee that the volunteers had pulled out. The media specialists and teachers who run the program do so on their own time outside of contract hours.

On Aug. 31 the district posted an article on its website stating students were already preparing for the competition “despite reports to the contrary.”

Additionally, some schools are now reportedly putting their school book fairs on hold. Rinderle purchased “My Shadow is Purple” at her own school’s Scholastic book fair.

MDJ comments and emails to the district office

On Tuesday, the MDJ published an article about the public’s ongoing confusion over the status of the reading bowl and asked the district for comment about Hubbard’s statements.

From the MDJ: “When contacted by the MDJ about these accusations, Cobb County School District spokesperson Nan Kiel responded in an email saying, “Mr. Hubbard has our phone number. We have no knowledge of his claims and are happy to hear specifics about the alleged accusations, directly, not through media.”

Hubbard shared his Aug. 7 email to Chief Academic Officer Catherine Mallanda with the media, which the Courier reported on Aug. 25. In it, he requested protections for teachers in light of teacher Rinderle’s then-pending termination. He said he received a one sentence acknowledgement but nothing was done.

In response to Tuesday’s MDJ article, Hubbard shared another email with the Courier that he sent to Mallanda on Sep. 1. In it, he repeated his request for the district to guarantee protection for participating staff members and requested to schedule a meeting in the district office.

Good evening Dr. Mallanda,

I have received many emails, texts, and calls regarding this evening’s press release regarding the resumption of the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl raising questions to where I would like to speak with you in person as soon as possible.

I am available all week except from Tuesday 1230-4 and Wednesday 1000-130.

My members, myself, and others are wishing to know if my proposals from the August 7 email to you will be implemented and how / what protections will be made available for any media specialist/teacher/coach to participate without fear of a complaint from a parent going the school district for investigation, and how/will/have all books in this year’s three level reading list been vetted and approved for usage?

Please remember that I brought these concerns on behalf of CCAE before the Rinderle hearing and termination, before the events of August 18 at a high school and subsequent email to the Superintendent on that day, and before the HRRB Steering Committee announced they would not be holding the bowl this year.

As with all other interactions that I have had with you and your office since I became CCAE President, I am still continuing to try and work for win-win in all things that represent our children and employees. It is the actions of others that have created the current climate.

I respectfully ask that we meet as early as possible next week to discuss next steps to addressing and allaying ALL concerns and fears that the CCSD Media Specialists and Teacher/Coaches have brought to me regarding the HRRB and reading issues in general.

As always, I appreciate your consideration and assistance in our request.

Jeff Hubbard, CCAE President

Board member Randy Scamihorn also weighed in Tuesday, telling the MDJ that the email from the reading bowl chairs was misinformation.

“I would (suggest) Jeff Hubbard to refer his teachers, all two of them, to HR, to human resources. Although I’m sympathetic to someone that’s unhappy in their position in life, there are many alternative paths to take,” Scamihorn told the newspaper.

In a written statement shared with the Courier Wednesday, Hubbard wrote:

What strikes CCAE as dishonest and disconcerting are the comments by the CCSD Media Relations personnel, who have publicly stated multiple times that I, on behalf of CCAE, had not contacted the appropriate personnel nor “let them know of our concerns.” I would respectfully counter that the multiple media partners who have reached out for comment from CCAE and CCSD on the Rinderle situation, book confiscation/investigatory hearings of media specialists and HRRB cancellation stories could testify that their stories and interviews clearly state that CCAE brought enunciated concerns. Or, as CCSD called the HRRB Co-Chair comments in their press comments…..”lies”. And let’s not forget the original email of August 7 to a CCSD Executive Cabinet officer. 

Integrity is everything, CCAE has made multiple attempts at engaging with the Executive Cabinet of CCSD to bring proactive solutions to help solve the concerns that CCAE (not parents) raised regarding books in the HRRB. Instead, we have been ignored, publicly dismissed, but most upsetting, our media specialists/employees demeaned by staff and one board member via an article in the September 5, 2023 Marietta Daily Journal. We may be called liars, but as Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, “The pen is mightier than the sword” or in today’s terms……email date and time stamps don’t lie!

The Courier reached out to Floresta, Kiel and Ragsdale for clarification on the statement given to the MDJ.  Additionally, it asked if the district intended to grant Hubbard’s request to guarantee job safety for participating staff members and for comment on Hubbard’s emails to Mallanda. No one at the district office has responded.

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.

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