Former Cobb school district employee calls subpoena ‘retaliation’ for criticism of district

Jennifer Susko seated at a table wearing a "Teach Black History" t-shirt

Jennifer Susko (photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

by Rebecca Gaunt

Jennifer Susko routinely takes the Cobb County School District and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale to task online and during public comment at school board meetings. Now she says that activism landed her in the middle of a lawsuit she has nothing to do with.

Susko, a school counselor formerly employed by CCSD, told the Courier that she believes she was issued a subpoena by the Cobb school district’s attorneys at the law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary as an act of retaliation for being an outspoken critic of the superintendent, the school board, and members of Ragsdale’s executive cabinet.

The subpoena commanded Susko’s communications and documents dating back to 2016. It included private texts and emails to all members of the media, legislators, and a lengthy list of organizations and individuals in relation to the lawsuit alleging racial gerrymandering in House Bill 1028 , the legislation pertaining to the redistricting of the Cobb County school district..

Susko is a polarizing figure in the Cobb community, or at least within the portion that pays attention to the school board and decisions made by the superintendent. She often delivers scathing remarks about the board and district’s actions during the public comment portion of the school board meetings. At September’s meeting, she presented a giant pink slip with Ragsdale’s name on it, in a particularly colorful rebuke.

“Love me or hate me, that’s usually where it falls for people, I don’t think that Cobb County taxpayers will be happy to know that their tax dollars are going toward paying their law firm to serve me, and all the resources that it’s costing, being that I have nothing to do with the case,” she said.

Redistricting and lawsuit

A coalition of parents and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the Cobb County Board of Elections in June 2022, alleging that the redistricted maps were racially gerrymandered, packing Black voters into three districts. The Southern Poverty Law Center stated that the purpose was to seek an injunction to prevent the use of the map. The district, school board, and the legislators involved in creating the map were not named as defendants.

In January 2023, the Cobb County School District voluntarily intervened as a defendant in the lawsuit in order to defend the maps. Susko was served Feb. 14.

The redistricting effort, which was required following the 2020 census, has been fraught with controversy from the beginning.

In August 2021, the school board voted along party lines to hire Taylor English Duma LLP to draw new maps. Democratic members of the board objected to then-Chairman Randy Scamihorn’s decision not to seek bids from other firms and questioned why Scamihorn did not disclose former Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart’s ties to the firm. 

Then board-member Charisse Davis asked Scamihorn at the August 2021 meeting if he was aware that Ehrhart was the CEO of Taylor English Decisions. Scamihorn replied that he was not.

“The marquee says Taylor English. It does not say Ehrhart. Ehrhart is not involved in what we’re doing,” Scamihorn said.

When then-board member Jaha Howard pointed out that Ehrhart was pictured on the firm’s website as the CEO of Taylor English Decisions, Scamihorn warned him, “Be careful, Dr. Howard.”

However, a motion filed by the plaintiffs in the redistricting lawsuit states that Scamihorn met with Ehrhart, as well as Taylor English attorneys Jonathan Crumly and Bryan Tyson, and district employees John Floresta and Andy Steinhauser, to discuss the chairman’s principles for a map three months earlier, in May 2021.

The lawsuit alleges the redistricting effort began in secret from the three Black Democratic board members.

In the 2022 legislative session,state Rep. Ginny Ehrhart (R-West Cobb), wife of Earl Ehrhart, sponsored HB 1028. Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law in March. 

Democratic members of the Cobb delegation protested Ehrhart’s bypassing of legislative precedent, in which she filed it as a general bill, rather than local, diluting their say in the matter.

The school district’s intervention came six months after the lawsuit against HB 1028 was filed. It hired Freeman Mathis & Gary in January. That same month, the firm announced Earl Ehrhart had joined, bringing along his government relations team from Taylor English.

“Unduly burdensome”

Susko’s very public resignation in 2021 from her job in CCSD is included in the original lawsuit because she quit in protest over the board’s resolution banning CRT and the 1619 Project. It’s one of several examples the attorneys for the plaintiffs listed as examples of the white board members suppressing efforts to advance issues raised by students and parents of color.

She is not a plaintiff, nor was she identified as a witness.

Susko was, however, the first to be subpoenaed, she told the Courier.

In February, there was a loud knock at her door and someone yelled her name. Not expecting anyone and scared, she didn’t answer, in part, she said, because she has been doxxed before in parent Facebook groups and white supremacist websites. The following day, she found the subpoena rolled up outside her door.

Susko believes the maps were intended to do precisely what the lawsuit alleges; she said as much during one of her public comments.

Nonetheless, she said she was not involved with the matter. She was focused on fighting HB 1084, the divisive concepts bill, including testifying at one of the senate committee meetings.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with redistricting, so to me it was purely harassment and intimidation to bring me in at all,” she said.

The response filed by her attorney Allen Page of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore states that the subpoena creates an undue burden on a non-party, according to Rule 45 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

“The lawsuit involves a single claim that a state law, HB 1028, is unconstitutional because it enacts a racial gerrymander in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The documents or communications of an individual citizen have no bearing on whether the actions of a government entity are constitutional,” he wrote.

Ten days after the district filed the notice of subpoena, Scamihorn made “disparaging public remarks about Ms. Susko and implied that she should not have been hired at her current job,” the document notes. “These [redacted] public comments reflect a desire on the part of the board members to damage Ms. Susko in retaliation for her public statements against some of their policies and to prevent her from making further statements.”

The subpoena also came two months after the death of her father, Mableton-resident Paul Susko, to whom she was extremely close. 

She believes the intent was to silence her, and for a while, paired with grieving her father, it worked. She continued to attend board meetings but opted not to speak as she conferred with her attorney.

Susko has also attracted the admiration and ire of elected officials at the county and state level.

Lisa Cupid, the Democratic chair of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, hired her temporarily as a chief assistant. When the Marietta Daily Journal asked Cupid why she hired someone so controversial, she responded that Susko cared for the community and had “an outstanding work ethic that will help to keep initiatives moving forward.”

In the same Around Town opinion column, Ginny Ehrhart, whom Susko had previously criticized on social media for “actively harming Black women,” called her an “attention-seeking, racist activist” guilty of “indoctrinating young children in racial victimology.”

The column was posted Feb. 3. 

She was saying things that amounted to me being racist toward white people. Libelous claims as far as I’m concerned,” Susko said.

Given Ehrhart’s connection to the law firm, Susko said she doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence she was served less than two weeks later.

A sampling of requested documents included in the subpoena: all communications in which she sought advice over her resignation letter, all educational materials she drafted relating to racial discrimination in Cobb, copies of all social media posts and private messages related to the board or Cobb County Schools, all documents sent or received from news organizations including Maureen Downey at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB-TV, Axios, and the Marietta Daily Journal, and communications with plaintiffs in the lawsuit, SPLC, ACLU, and members of the Georgia General Assembly.

Susko said she felt particularly protective of communications with students who are involved in racial justice activism, and would go to jail before turning anything like that over.

“So much of what I do is public. And then you want my private communications since 2016. Why?” she asked.

After counsel completed a search of her email account, seven potentially responsive emails were found. Three were withheld due to First Amendment association privilege, two were partially redacted to protect the identities of those involved in the nonprofit organization Stronger Together, and two were produced in their entirety.

After two months of negotiations, Page’s position is that Susko’s involvement is concluded. The emails were turned over on May 10, but on May 19 the school district filed a request for a deposition. After Page and Susko objected, the district did not pursue it. The designated period for fact discovery ended Sep. 5. Additionally, the school district’s motion to be released from the lawsuit was granted by the judge on July 18, and it is no longer authorized to seek discovery.

Back at the podium

Susko’s silence didn’t last long. In July 2023, she was back at the podium to speak at the millage rate hearing. As she walked to the podium, she played “Back in Black” by AC/DC on her phone, a jab at Ragsdale’s recent introduction with flashing red and white lights at a new teacher rally. A recording by someone in attendance had circulated on social media earlier in the week.

“Racial discrimination against Black people as usual. Yet I’m being punished for it and paying for your defense with my tax dollars?” she said. “Either roll back the millage rate or just stop overspending on things like $50 million event centers and wasteful legal fees used partially to harass former employees.”

The firing of teacher Katie Rinderle for reading a gender-themed picture book and the removal of two books from the school library after the district received a complaint from the right-wing social media account Libs of Tik Tok is what sparked her back into action. 

During Rinderle’s tribunal it was made public that CCSD’s director of employee relations, Chris Dowd, was a former member of the Atlanta Police Department’s Red Dog unit. Dowd was accused of using racial slurs during a raid on a gay bar in Midtown in 2009. The city of Atlanta paid out over a million dollars as a result of the unit’s actions and the Red Dog unit was soon after disbanded. 

In September, Susko organized a “Replace Ragsdale” rally, but the firing of Dowd was one of the demands. Participants donned red shirts with the words “Replace Ragsdale” and held signs proclaiming “[John] Floresta is a Failure” and “Fire Chris Dowd.”

CCSD employment

“You can’t be nice. It doesn’t work,” Susko said, when asked about her tactics. 

Susko started work as a media specialist paraprofessional at Mableton Elementary School in 2015. In 2016, she accepted a position there as a school counselor, a job she loved and says she still misses. 

The job was a perfect fit because part of the ethics of a school counselor is to be a social and racial justice advocate and to instill a sense of belonging in students: matters that she is passionate about.

Susko acknowledges that for a while, she believed the district was moving in the right direction by conducting implicit bias training.

However a disagreement with the training leader over how the training was conducted ended with a call to Susko’s principal who was asked to write a letter of direction, according to Susko.

Susko started speaking at board meetings in 2017, sharing data and research.

“I was trying to see them as people who might recognize there are Black kids experiencing harm…if you go back and look, you will see that. I was doing it as a school counselor in the way that I’m ethically obligated to advocate, and in a way that I wasn’t showing them a pink slip,” she said.

Eventually, Susko’s principal relayed a message from the district that she would have to provide prior notification when she planned to speak at board meetings or present anywhere outside the district.

“I knew if I didn’t do it, I would get in trouble,” she said.

Susko and another counselor also got the opportunity to meet with district staff and present data about racially disproportionate discipline and student achievement gaps.

“That really meant something to us,” she said.

However, when district training on anti-racist ethics was planned, word came down the pipeline that she and her co-worker were not allowed to present. 

In January 2021, Susko’s public comment went viral further souring her relationship with the district.

A Cobb art teacher named Patrick Key died of COVID-19 in December. The school community was at odds over masks. Key was a staunch supporter of masking, so Susko asked for the board to put them on for a moment of silence. Many were already wearing masks, but Ragsdale, and two board members, David Chastain and David Banks, did not oblige.

In February 2021, Susko didn’t receive her contract when her coworkers did. Her principal said she didn’t know why and told her to reach out to HR. Susko reached out to Dowd on Feb. 15, and again on Feb 25. She received a response from Dowd on Feb 26, which she shared with the Courier.

“Please understand that the issuance of employment contracts is at the discretion of the District. Neither state law nor District policy mandates we issue all contracts at the same time or requires that we make notification of why one is not initially issued an employment contract,” Dowd wrote.

He went on to say that she would be notified by June 1 if her contract was not renewed, and that he could stop by the school for further discussion if she requested. 

Susko encountered Ragsdale at a vigil for the three teachers who died of COVID-19. She brought it up to him, and he told her he’d look into it. The contract showed up in late March. According to Susko, no one ever addressed the reason for the hold with her.

Susko resigned four months later, writing, “It has been made very clear that I will be watched closely and disciplined for adhering to my ethical obligations and for implementing an anti-racist framework.” 

As the lawsuit currently stands, the elections board agreed to settle with the plaintiffs earlier this month. Part of that agreement means that it will not fight to keep the maps in place. Plaintiffs have requested interim maps be used for the 2024 election, until the legislature can create a replacement. The school district subsequently filed a motion requesting to be allowed back into the lawsuit.

Read more here: Groups file for injunction against ‘gerrymandered’ school board maps – Cobb County Courier

Neither Freeman Mathis & Gary nor the school district responded to requests for comment.

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.