Photo of conditions inside lobby before the public comment signup was abruptly moved outdoors by Rebecca Gaunt
By Rebecca Gaunt
Community members are still asking what led to last month’s dangerous public comment debacle at the Cobb County school board meeting and how sign up for public comment will be handled at the Oct. 19 meeting.
Those answers have not been forthcoming, other than a statement from Chief of Strategy and Accountability John Floresta to a parent that staff and public safety personnel “continue to review all operational options to ensure safe access to Board meetings, including the sign-up location for public comment.”
Micheal Garza, a parent and community activist and critic of Ragsdale’s leadership, alleged Tuesday that the district changed the Sep. 14 public comment sign up location at the last minute last month to allow supporters of the superintendent to get spots.
Per district policy, sign up for public comment opens 30 minutes before the board meetings and is first come, first serve. Those who wish to speak have routinely lined up near the lobby desk until sign up opens. The line often forms early when controversial issues arise, and on this day, began to form between 3 and 4 p.m., the first person in line being a parent who regularly speaks about special education issues in the district.
The meeting drew a crowd in protest of Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s leadership, and counter-protestors were there in a show of support.
A group of students from the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition were also present to speak about equitable funding for their schools and the recent removals of certain books.
At the time sign up was to open, the laptop was abruptly rushed outside triggering a rush of people trying to jump in the line, aggressive pushing and reports of minor injuries. People who had waited in the line inside for two or more hours were unwilling to forgo their spots for recent arrivals. Some reported being threatened with arrest for disorderly conduct.
In an email to the district and board members that he also sent to media outlets, Garza also alleged that Floresta shared an inflammatory and inaccurate account of what happened at the September meeting–that people inside the lobby had created an unsafe environment–with board members as an excuse for why the move was made.
Heather Tolley-Bauer, a founder of Watching the Funds – Cobb, a parent-led financial watchdog group, emailed the district and the board Sep. 18 to ask why sign up was moved outside without warning. Tolley-Bauer was not present at the Sep. 14 meetings or rallies, but is a frequent speaker during public comment regarding district spending.
“It’s noteworthy that the rally and counter rally were held without incident. It was only when the District acted in an irresponsible and negligent manner that the situation became chaotic and dangerous,” she wrote.
In emails shared with the Courier, Tolley-Bauer followed up on Oct. 4 because she had not received a response from CCSD. Board member Becky Sayler emailed John Floresta asking for clarification on the events of Sep. 14. Floresta’s response to Tolley-Bauer only addressed Sayler directly, stating, “To protect the safety of both children and adults, regardless of how often we are asked, we do not discuss safety protocols with the public.”
Tolley-Bauer said she found it strange to not address her, but to copy all the board members.
“But it doesn’t surprise me,” she said.
On the Watching the Funds Facebook page, she wrote, “When asked for a second time, why public comment signup changes were made that resulted in a chaotic and dangerous situation and how they’d make sure this month’s meeting doesn’t have the same result, this is what John Floresta comes back with. Let’s be clear: they do not care about us, our opinions, our safety. They want our tax dollars. That’s it. And it’s unacceptable.”
In his email sent Oct. 10, Garza, who is not affiliated with Watching the Funds, wrote:
“We learned that after [Tolley-Bauer’s] email was sent, Mr. Floresta met with Ms. Sayler to discuss the reason for the move. In that meeting, Mr. Floresta cited a dangerous environment that we had supposedly created which necessitated the move of public comment saying “You don’t know how tense and dangerous it was.”
Floresta did not respond to the Courier’s request for comment, but in a response to Garza, he accused him of “mischaracterizations, inaccurate narrative, and inaccurate restatement of a third party conversation.”
However, Sayler responded to Garza that although what Garza had placed in quotations was not an exact quote from Floresta, “that was the gist of what was communicated to me. [Floresta] let me know there was context I was missing, which of course I can’t know for sure since I wasn’t there.”
She continued, “The video I saw showed conflict after the public comment was moved. I am hopeful we can have, and I have asked for, a better process for both determining if moving public comment is necessary, communicating the need to the public, and doing it in an orderly fashion.”
Garza also attached photos to his email of the lobby prior to the meeting that show the line and people standing around the lobby waiting and engaged in conversations without conflict.
Disclosure: The reporter referenced in Garza’s letter is me. I was present for the entire afternoon and was working in the lobby in the time leading up to the meeting and watched the line form. Prior to the events that occurred outside, I observed several groups of varying sizes speaking with each other, including a group of students. Many of the people present who were in opposition to Ragsdale were wearing shirts that said “Replace Ragsdale” or “Ban Bias Not Books.” Those who were there to show support for the superintendent passed out red shirts that said “Noted” on the front. Both groups had signs. I did not witness anything that appeared to be violent, threatening or otherwise concerning inside the lobby from anyone present.
Micheal Garza’s letter in full:
It has been three weeks since I and other members of the community reached out to Cobb County Schools after the district created a dangerous environment at the September Board of Education meeting in which individuals in attendance were physically and emotionally harmed. While none of us received a response from district leadership, board member Becky Sayler received a standard canned email response the district sends parents and community members when it does not want to be accountable to the community:
“To protect the safety of both children and adults, regardless of how often we are asked, we do not discuss safety protocols with the public.”
That email came from John Floresta, Chief Strategy and Accountability Officer of Cobb County School District, and it is attached to this email. We learned that after the email was sent, Mr. Floresta met with Ms. Sayler to discuss the reason for the move. In that meeting, Mr. Floresta cited a dangerous environment that we had supposedly created which necessitated the move of public comment saying “You don’t know how tense and dangerous it was.”
I have attached three pictures taken before the public comment was moved. There is one image that is all of us together posing for a photo. Some in district leadership call us a few political activists, but this picture shows a collection of roughly 30 parents, former educators, former librarians and media specialists, and current high school students. This was taken maybe 30 minutes before public comment was to start. The other two images were taken no more than 5 minutes before public comment was moved. They show a complete picture of the inside of the building. What they do not show is a tense or dangerous situation that Mr. Floresta said would necessitate a move. Certainly if such a situation existed, members of the media would have been covering it, but the pictures show a local reporter typing on her laptop in the middle of all of us. Most other media members were either setting up inside or staying outside of the building.
I asked several questions in my email three weeks ago to understand what led to the district decision making that night. The stonewalling since shows the district had no plans to share that with the public. But, with this new information, here is an educated guess as to what those answers would be if leadership was being honest:
- It is obvious that Mr. Floresta, with his string of emails with Libs of TikTok and internal communications with the board, made the decision to move public comment.
- It is obvious that Mr. Floresta made the decision that evening when it was apparent that no supporter of executive leadership would get a spot for public comment.
- It is obvious that Mr. Floresta lied to board members about a tense and dangerous situation that did not exist prior to the move of public comment.
- It is obvious that the real reason for the move is that the executive leadership wanted its supporters to get spots at public comment, and it wanted to discourage detractors of the leadership from attending the board meeting.
And on this last point you failed because every single one of us filed into that board meeting, many standing the whole time. Thirteen of us who withstood physical intimidation in line to get a spot in public comment spoke our truth, including courageous testimony from George, a transgender Cobb student who spoke of his identity being real and how important it was for him to see his adolescent experiences as a queer youth in a book like Flamer. And during the meeting, we withstood being called pedophiles by supporters of district leadership during a speech in which the superintendent all but called us pedophiles and groomers himself.
Let’s get back to this though “to protect the safety of both children and adults.” We hear all the time that student safety is Cobb’s number one priority. But is it? There was certainly none of that on display at the board meeting and there’s certainly not much of that on display when the actions of executive leadership marginalize students throughout the county and elevate outside voices of hate like Libs of TikTok. Those are just words when parent and student voices don’t matter, and instead our leadership jumps over backwards to relent to the demands of a group responsible for dozens of bomb threats of elementary schools and children’s hospitals throughout the US.
I don’t doubt that there are those of you who sit on the other side of issues who, at some point, had the well-being of our students and our educators at the top of mind when starting in your positions. But somewhere, you lost that. Somewhere you started to care more about your egos or positions in power than you care for the 110,000+ students and the thousands of educators and staff employed in Cobb. Somewhere you forgot that this school district is not the Chris Ragsdale show – it answers to the school board and the school board answers to us, the public. And if you truly thought the public was on your side, you would not have hired a political firm to draw zero competitive school board posts – a move that pushes the board towards the extremes and results in the further politicization of our children’s education. All of this is unacceptable to me as a father and as a parent volunteer deeply invested in the lives of students and educators in our local school community. It is unacceptable to us as people who care deeply about EVERY single child in a county we love.
So the purpose of this email is not to get a response from our leadership. Mr. Floresta and Mr. Ragsdale have shown themselves incapable of doing the right thing even in the face of overwhelming evidence showing wrongdoing on the part of CCSD. This email is to inform the full board that you were lied to by those in leadership. This email is to share these details with the media who have also been lied to by leadership. What you all do with this information is up to you. But we are not going anywhere. And we will continue to shed light on the poor decisions this leadership makes until we have new leadership that reflects the amazing educators in our schools and the exceptional children in our classrooms.
Parent of a child in Cobb Schools and property owner
Co-Organizer of Cobb Community Care Coalition
In response to the Courier’s request for comment, district spokesperson Nan Kiel wrote, “Due to ongoing concerns with accuracy in reporting, the District does not participate in the Courier’s stories. We look forward to further conversation when the Courier’s reporting practices meet the minimal threshold for accuracy in reporting.”
The district has declined to comment or participate in stories for the Courier since 2021. It has never requested a correction or retraction.