by Rebecca Gaunt
A missive penned by the Atlanta-based law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary on behalf of the Cobb County School District and sent out to every family in the district Friday raised eyebrows over the weekend.
“I had to check and make sure it really did come from CTLS,” said parent Kaitlin Johnston.
CTLS, or the Cobb Teaching and Learning System, is the digital learning and communication system for the school district.
The letter opens with, “In Spring 2022, leftist political activists were unable to prevent the Georgia General Assembly and Governor from exercising their lawful authority to approve Cobb County School District’s new election posts for the Cobb County Board of Education.”
It also refers to a “Democratic party activist” on the elections board and alleges the board worked out a settlement in secrecy with the “politically allied plaintiffs.”
Read the full letter from Freeman Mathis & Gary here: Important Legal Update for Cobb County Taxpayers (cobbk12.org)
Georgia State Rep. Teri Anulewicz (D-Smyrna) called the email bonkers in a thread on X (formerly Twitter). She even considered the possibility the district was hacked.
“Parents are insulted, extra and unnecessary work is created on rank & file district staff who are already overworked as it is, the GOP peacocks to an increasingly disenchanted Cobb electorate,” she wrote.
Parent Rachel Lekherzak told the Courier she was disgusted by the letter “which was clearly written to absolve CCSD of wasting taxpayer dollars.”
“I find it insulting that the board thinks parents can be manipulated so easily”, she said. “More importantly, I want to know why the school board felt it needed to spend taxpayer dollars to intervene with the lawsuit voluntarily? How much did this legal action cost? This poorly written letter alone would likely cost taxpayers hundreds of dollars for the law firm to draft.”
The letter called the Board of Elections’ decision to settle the lawsuit “hasty” and a “complete usurpation of the legislative process.”
“To justify what they have done, the Elections Board says it is cheaper to give up than to defend the map against the array of liberal activist groups affiliated with Stacy [sic] Abrams and the Democratic Party,” the firm wrote.
Leherzak pointed to a line from the message about the lawsuit that was written by the district’s media department, and by comparison, is arguably softer in tone: “We will continue to insulate our students and schools from inappropriate political influence and agendas.”
“Who are they kidding? They already sent this propaganda letter to every parent in the district via email. It only further erodes my trust in CCSD leadership,” she said.
Read the official statement from the district here: Important District Update about Lawsuit which Impacts Every Cobb Taxpayer (cobbk12.org)
Cheryl Oliviér, a parent of three students in East Cobb called it a “divisive text” in the Cobb County Schools Unofficial & Uncensored Facebook group.
“It’s entirely partisan, and attacks the SPLC and Stacey Abrams, as well as the election board for having a democrat? This is on the main page for the district, for all students to read and access,” she wrote.
From another parent:
“Thank you! I was starting to think I was the only person angry about the extreme partisan slant and complete waste of money that went into that letter. It was so offensive, I couldn’t even get through the whole thing,” wrote parent Stephanie Campanella in the Cobb County School District Unofficial Community Page Facebook group.
An X user called it crossing a red line to use the parent communication system to send it out, while another called for the firing of the person responsible.
Parent Adam Shields told the Courier, “The issue that this message raises is that when official pronouncements open with language like this message did, is that it signals that there is no real desire to serve the whole community and work toward consensus.”
TJ Adams has two children in Cobb schools. He told the Courier that he objects to the Southern Poverty Law Centers’ ongoing litigation regarding several matters in the district, including the maps.
He was also displeased by the incendiary language in Friday’s letter, calling it an example of the district not practicing what they teach.
“The anger is not correctly levied at the SPLC,” he said. “Two wrongs do not make a right…it does not mean the school district can lash out with politically charged language at its community, thus alienating a large chunk of the community that it serves.”
The Cobb County Association of Educators posted a statement on Facebook in response to the letter:
Words hurt – and after seeing the countywide CTLS email notification this afternoon about “Taxpayer alerts,” it is clear that certain individuals at the central office either do not understand that Cobb is not 100% conservative or they don’t care that there may be more than one side to an issue. The CCSD website should be promoting what is to be celebrated and uplifted rather than promoting a single political ideology on an issue. THIS is a major reason for the rancor and distrust of those in roles appointed leadership and the board.
The Courier reached out to all school board members for comment on the letter.
Post 2 board member Democrat Becky Sayler, responded, “As an individual, I do not support this letter, including the incorrect spelling of Stacey Abrams’ name.”
Post 3 board member Democrat Leroy Tre’ Hutchins said, “It is my hope that those in position to ensure quality education in Cobb County stay focused on the mission and vision of Student Success. That is where my focus is and will remain. Anything else is a distraction that I choose not to engage in.”
Post 1 Board member Republican Randy Scamihorn sent a response included here in full:
Some have objected to a legal update from a law firm about a political lawsuit, which includes political language. Interestingly, no one, including those few critics, have said any part of the update is untrue.
We are criticized by those same few that we are not transparent enough and now, those same few are criticizing us for being too transparent. We simply want to keep the taxpayer informed on what is happening and who is responsible.
It is indefensible that the Elections Board will not defend a fair and legal school maps. All of those that are listed as plaintiffs in this lawsuit are who they are and to criticize us, for saying out loud what they are trying to do, is ridiculous.
We do agree this frivolous lawsuit is a waste of money, shame on political interest groups who are attempting to use the legal system to degrade the quality of education in Cobb County.
We also agree there is nothing we do that will satisfy those whose stated agenda is to reverse the Board of Education majority and remove the Superintendent. For them, the quality of education we offer is not important – only their political agenda.
Your misleading questions are not accurate or framed correctly – this is not political for us, we are simply informing our community about the political maneuvers in this lawsuit.
This lawsuit was thrust upon us, just like attempts to close schools during COVID-19, to more recently sexually inappropriate materials for children, and a long list of other social battles which have no place in our schools. We look forward to a time when the entire focus of our schools can be on school.
The questions posed by the Courier, and referred to as misleading by Scamihorn, were in the following email to the district and board:
Good evening Nan and John,
I’ve spoken with parents this weekend who have said they are very upset that CTLS was used to send out the letter from Freeman Mathis & Gary Friday, in addition to it being placed on the district website.
Some of the words and phrases used by people in the community to describe the letter in conversation and on social media: unhinged, divisive, partisan, offensive, unprofessional, waste of money, nonsense, disappointing but not surprising, and inflammatory.
The Cobb County Association of Educators, the Cobb Democratic Committee, state Rep. Teri Anulewicz and former Rep. Erick Allen denounced it over the weekend.
Did the district foresee a negative reaction from stakeholders given the tone and language used in the letter? Can you respond to the stakeholders who view sending this third-party letter as an inappropriate use of Cobb’s parent and student communication system?
Deadline for publication 11 a.m. Monday.
I sent a separate email to board members earlier, but this email has more information about the responses I’ve since collected from the Cobb community, so I am including them, with a request for comment on this email as well.
The SPLC said a statement on the lawsuit is forthcoming Monday afternoon.
Background on the law firm and lawsuit
Cobb County School District hired Taylor English Duma LLP in August 2021 to redraw its board maps, rather than have legislators in the apportionment office draw them.
The three Democrats on the board objected on the grounds that then-chairman Randy Scamihorn did not seek bids or know what the contract cost would be. Then-board member Jaha Howard also questioned the politics behind it since the CEO of Taylor English Decisions at the time was former Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart.
State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart (R-West Cobb), wife of Earl Ehrhart, sponsored the map in the state legislature.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed the map into law in March 2022.
In June, parents backed by Civil Rights and left-leaning groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination, alleging “packing” or concentrating Black voters into three of the seven districts. They filed a lawsuit against the Cobb Board of Elections to prevent implementation.
Ginny Ehrhart, the district, and Republican board members have adamantly denied accusations of racism in the drawing of the maps..
In January 2023, Freeman Mathis & Gary announced the firm had added a government relations team, consisting of Earl Ehrhart and his team from Taylor English Decisions.
The Cobb County School District then hired Freeman Mathis & Gary to defend it in the redistricting lawsuit. Though CCSD was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, it intervened in order to defend the maps. In July, a federal judge found the district not liable in the lawsuit on the basis that it did not have a long standing pattern of constitutional violations when redistricting.
The Cobb Board of Elections opted to settle with the plaintiffs and has denied accusations of collusion. The district is now attempting to rejoin the lawsuit in order to defend the maps.
Note from the writer: It is my policy as a freelancer to ask permission of the commenters in private Facebook groups before publication, provided they are not elected officials or public figures.
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.