Secrecy dominated Cobb school board redistricting process, court documents show

Screenshot of Cobb school board member Randy Scamihorn pointing his finger

Screenshot: School board member Randy Scamihorn

By Rebecca Gaunt

Court documents show that Cobb County school board member Randy Scamihorn met with former Republican state representative Earl Ehrhart to discuss redistricting three months before a school board meeting in which he adamantly denied Ehrhart’s involvement. 

Scamihorn introduced his plan to hire Taylor English Duma, LLP to create the maps for redistricting at the Aug. 19, 2021 school board meeting.

Former Democratic board member Charisse Davis asked Scamihorn point blank if he was aware of Ehrhart’s ties to Taylor English Decisions, the lobbying arm of the firm. Scamihorn replied that he was not. Later in the same meeting, Scamihorn explicitly stated Ehrhart was not involved.

A review of the recorded school board meetings in the time between the secret meeting in May and the approval of the map by the board majority in December, showed that the meeting was kept under wraps, even when the Democratic members of the board asked questions and pushed for more information.

The board approved hiring Taylor English 4-3 along party lines. The decision was lambasted by the Democratic members of the board because it was approved without knowing the cost or seeking bids from any other firms.

“Do we have any idea of what something like this is going to cost?” asked Republican board member David Chastain before the vote.

“Well this is my first time through it so we would certainly like to know ” replied Scamihorn.

A lawsuit filed in June 2022 alleged that the maps were racially gerrymandered in a secret process hidden from the Black Democratic members to ensure the white Republicans maintained their majority on the board, and that the redistricting packed Black and Latino voters into three districts. 

It also alleged that Republican Brad Wheeler’s close race with Democrat Lindsay Terrebonne in 2020 was a precipitating factor as it could have flipped the board.

Depositions taken as part of the lawsuit of other involved parties revealed that three months before the August exchange with Davis, Scamihorn met with Ehrhart and two other attorneys from the Taylor English firm: Jonathan Crumly, part of Ehrhart’s governmental affairs team, and Bryan Tyson. 

Two CCSD central office employees, John Floresta, the chief strategy and accountability officer, and Andy Steinhauser, whose current role at the district is unclear, were also present.

[The Courier reached out to the district to clarify Steinhauser’s position as he is not listed on the district website. The OpenGovUS website indicated he taught in Cobb before taking a public relations position with the district, but spokesperson Nan Kiel declined to answer the Courier’s questions about his current role. An in-house employee directory that was shared with the Courier placed him in the office of strategy and accountability.]

At the time of the undisclosed meeting on May 12, 2021, Scamihorn was serving as board chairman.

In his deposition for the plaintiffs, Steinhauser acknowledged that he was present for the May meeting. When asked why it was determined at that point that redistricting would need to happen, he said he had no idea.

In Tyson’s deposition he said he advised the board members that continuing to use the map already in place from 2012 was legally defensible because they were still within the plus or minus 5% deviation from the ideal district size. He also shared this information in his December 2021 presentation to the board.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs then asked if Steinhauser had a conversation with Scamihorn after the May 12 meeting about the plan moving forward. Steinhauser said they discussed Scamihorn’s criteria for the map. Beyond that, he said the chairman wished to keep his hands off the matter. 

In the fall, Steinhauser said he reached out to Tyson at Taylor English.

In his deposition, Tyson said he understood Steinhauser to be authorized to speak on behalf of Scamihorn during the redistricting process.

He also acknowledged being at the meeting that took place at the Taylor English office in the spring.

When asked about Tyson’s testimony that Steinhauser was acting as Scamihorn’s proxy, Steinhauser said he didn’t agree that was accurate.

According to the transcript, Steinhauser said, “I don’t speak for anyone. I was there pointing out – I don’t know – yes and no. I know what he wanted so I don’t know that I would speak on Mr. Scamihorn’s behalf of whatever the issue might be. That would not be accurate.”

Steinhauser later said he couldn’t recall whether he had a conversation with Scamihorn permitting him to speak on his behalf.

However, Tyson told attorneys that he had communication from Scamihorn that Steinhauser was authorized to represent him.

“I don’t remember how I got that permission, whether that was a phone call, whether that was something else,” Tyson said.

July 2021 Bringing reapportionment to the board 

Then school-board-member Charisse Davis

Scamihorn first brought the matter of redistricting to the board in July 2021.

When Davis asked about the process for the board and district to go about creating the maps, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale jumped in to clarify that the map process “is not the district. This is total–just the board.” 

Davis also asked Scamihorn when the appropriate time would be to start searching for a demographer to assist with the maps. Scamihorn replied that he was seeking a timeline for the process, but he didn’t “have an answer for her.”

Then school-board member Jaha Howard

August 2021 Hiring Taylor English Duma

The next month, Scamihorn was back at the work session with a recommendation to hire Taylor English Duma, LLP. 

Former Democratic board member Jaha Howard asked how many firms Scamihorn considered before landing on Taylor English. Scamihorn said he “had just learned of them” and saw no need to delve into other firms. He also said he had already consulted with the board attorney about it.

Howard and Davis expressed frustration that Scamihorn had not shared any information regarding the firm, or even that a firm would be considered that day, prior to the meeting. The agenda item vaguely stated that an item related to apportionment would be considered for possible action.

“Thank you for your opinion, but this is where I am,” Scamihorn responded.

Democratic board member Leroy Tre’ Hutchins also asked why three firms weren’t being considered.

Republican David Banks made it clear he would not support the idea of hiring a firm, calling the process political.

“I think at this point it’s inappropriate for the school board to entertain an outside firm to do reapportionment when the actual political parties are going to do the actual reapportionment,” he said.

Banks described his experience with the redistricting process 10 years earlier which involved going down to the reapportionment office of the state legislature and collaborating to create a map.

At Davis’ request for information beyond the name of the firm so she could prepare for the evening meeting, Scamihorn provided a piece of paper with details, which was shared with the Courier.

The roughly half-page typed document described the law firm as having 200 attorneys with clients across the political spectrum, named four clients the firm had done work for, and gave a brief work history for Tyson.

The evening discussion opened with Davis pointing out that Scamihorn had not disclosed that Ehrhart was the CEO.

“Are you aware of that?” she asked.

“No, I’m not,” he replied.

Howard objected partially on the basis that Earl Ehrhart is married to a sitting state representative, Ginny Ehrhart who represents West Cobb.

“I just find that really troubling, and also maybe even more so that it wasn’t disclosed ahead of time,” Howard said. “And even in the information that you shared with us on this piece of paper here, that it has none of that information on there.”

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

Scamihorn continued, “I’m not driving this train. I’m trying to help where we can get somebody that does work on both sides and that we can move forward.”

Davis asked again how Scamihorn found the firm. He replied that he had already answered that.

Howard pulled out his phone and displayed Ehrhart’s CEO photo on the Taylor English Decisions website. 

“I think we would be mistaken into believing that somehow…” Howard paused.

Scamihorn: “Be careful, Dr. Howard.”

Howard: “Please don’t say that because when we talk on the phone you do that, and now you’re doing it in public, and it’s problematic.”

Scamihorn: “No, you’re about ready to insult me.”

Howard: “Don’t tell me to be careful. Don’t raise your voice. There’s several things we can do a little bit better, starting with that. Thank you.”

Hutchins, who was participating via Zoom, informed the board that no one had emailed him the information that was promised in the work session.

Saying he didn’t have a strong opinion, but that he wanted to move the issue forward, Scamihorn initiated the vote over the objections of the Democratic board members.

Despite Banks’ objections at the earlier meeting, he joined the other Republicans in voting to hire Taylor English.

December 2021 Presentation of the Chair’s map 

Charisse Davis suggested continuing to use the old maps at the December 2021 meeting, citing the fact that the three maps submitted by her, Scamihorn, and Hutchins were not posted for the public until 8 p.m. the night before the meeting. Two were withdrawn and only Scamihorn’s map was considered.

“I think it’s important for the public to know that I think they’re the missing piece in all of this. They’re the most important people, the voters, and they’re the ones who are not involved in this process,” Howard said at the work session.

“It looks like we are going to recommend a map, discuss a map, and vote on this map today, all in the same meeting,” Davis said that evening. “It is my recommendation that we continue with the maps that we have since they are legal, and I believe, also fair and competitive.”

During his presentation of what he called the “Chair’s map,” Tyson told the board that Taylor English Duma, his branch, and Taylor English Decisions, Ehrhart and Crumly’s branch, were completely separate. 

“We didn’t even talk to them about anything related to this as was outlined in our engagement,” he said.

Former board member Jaha Howard asked Tyson when his firm was first approached by the district.

Tyson responded that there was an inquiry sometime in spring or summer, but he did not disclose the May meeting.

“I think we heard about you kind of much later than that, so it just helps me to track how it all went down,” Howard said.

The map was approved 4-3 along party lines to be sent to the legislative reapportionment office.

On Dec. 22, Scamihorn emailed Ginny Ehrhart and asked her to sponsor the map in the Georgia General Assembly. She bypassed standard protocol and filed it as a general bill, rather than a local bill, sidestepping the Cobb delegation.

Court documents

In his deposition, Scamihorn echoed his comments from the board meeting that he chose Taylor English because of its record of bipartisanship based on its previous work. When asked what work specifically, Scamihorn said he wasn’t told.

Floresta testified that Scamihorn asked him to begin researching experts in redistricting in early spring 2021, and that he had suggested Butler Snow for consideration, in addition to Taylor English. He also stated he was the only district staff member involved in the process.

Court documents included a text exchange from Feb. 4, 2022 in which Steinhauser texted Tyson asking him to look over eight talking points that “we have put together for Jenny Earhart [sic], per her request.”

It continued, “Make any changes you wish and then send it on to her…Keeping my fingerprints off it.”

Floresta did not respond to the Courier’s request to clarify in what capacity Steinhauser was acting, if not as a district employee.

The school district, which wasn’t named as a defendant, hired the law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary in January 2023 to defend the maps. CCSD has spent $1 million so far to voluntarily intervene in the lawsuit.

In January, Freeman Mathis & Gary also added a governmental affairs team led by Earl Ehrhart and his team, including Crumly, from Taylor English.

Scamihorn did not respond to emailed questions from the Courier.

Timeline of redistricting and lawsuit:

Early spring 2021 

Scamihorn asks Floresta to research options for redistricting.

May 2021       

Scamihorn, Ehrhart, Crumly, Tyson, Floresta, and Steinhauser meet at the Taylor English office.

July 2021      

Scamihorn puts reapportionment on the agenda for general discussion.

August 2021      

Scamihorn puts reapportionment (for potential action) on the agenda and board approves Taylor English 4-3.

December 2021       

Tyson presents the new map and the board approves it 4-3.

Scamihorn asks Rep. Ehrhart to sponsor the map in the General Assembly.

January 2022

Ehrhart files the bill, HB 1028.

March 2022    

Gov. Brian Kemp signs House Bill 1028 into law.

June 2022        

Lawsuit filed against the map that alleges racial gerrymandering. Elections board and director are named as defendants because the intent is to get an injunction against the implementation of the map. 

January 2023      

Cobb County School District voluntarily intervenes to defend maps; hires Freeman Mathis & Gary.

Freeman Mathis & Gary announce Ehrhart and his government team from Taylor English are joining the firm.

July 2023            

Federal judge finds the district not liable; it’s released as a defendant in the case.

October 2023  

The Elections board agrees to settle the lawsuit. Terms include that it will not file any motions to oppose the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the school district announce their intention to rejoin the lawsuit. 

Plaintiffs in lawsuit file injunction to prevent map from being used in the 2024 elections.

November 2023 

The AJC publishes an article revealing that the district has spent $1 million defending the maps.

At the board meeting, Democratic board member Becky Sayler makes a motion to end the district’s intervention in the lawsuit and end the relationship with Freeman Mathis & Gary. Her motion is defeated 4-3 along party lines.

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.