Group accuses Cobb County School District of retaliation against critics

Micheal Garza at press conference

By Rebecca Gaunt

A press conference was held Thursday by the Cobb Community Care Coalition that leveled charges of retaliation by Cobb County School District against critics of the district and a reporter.

The Coalition supported its charge with materials obtained from an open records request for emails and Microsoft Teams messages.

Jennifer Susko, an outspoken critic of district leadership filed the ORR in September. She received the results in November.

Susko, a school counselor who resigned from Cobb schools in 2021, joined three parents, Micheal Garza, Melissa Marten, and Andrew Cole, to present their findings.

Micheal Garza, Melissa Marten, Andrew Cole and Jennifer Susko

“It’s disappointing. It’s conniving. And the people of Cobb County deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent and what the school district leadership and staff dedicate their time to, instead of initiatives and opportunities that could actively benefit our children and our community,” said Cole.

An exchange between John Floresta, chief strategy and accountability officer, and Julian Coca, the director of content and marketing, was about a high school student whose opinion column was published by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. 

“The student who wrote the article in the ajc is planning on speaking in public comment tomorrow,” wrote John Floresta, chief strategy and accountability officer for Cobb County School District. 

Coca then messaged seven more district office employees:

“The student who wrote the article in the ajc is planning on speaking in public comment tomorrow. If so, has to have their parent with them (under the age of 18). If  not – they can’t speak…and the student’s mom is a member of the Board of Electors… so…. she probably doesn’t want to be in the limelight on this particular issue.”

The student had written about Georgia’s divisive concepts law and how it was negatively affecting her education and her teachers’ ability to teach literature.

The messages are dated the day before the board meeting. Public commenters cannot sign up to speak until 30 minutes before the meeting begins.

“Regardless of how the district found out that the student planned to attend, it is appalling to see that the district leaders would target them for participating in public comment because they use those critical thinking skills to express an opinion on their educational experience,” said Garza.

September’s afternoon work session public comment slots were dominated by people speaking in support of Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the district.

The group said they believe the motive for the district moving the public comment sign up in the evening right as sign up opened, after people had stood in line for hours, was to allow district supporters to jump in the line when it was apparent the slots were dominated by critical speakers. In the rush to the new location, as signup was to open, the crowd got out of control, people were mildly injured, and CCSD police officers threatened arrest for disorderly conduct.

When she filed the request, Susko said she was looking for proof of her suspicions about that decision.

A message from Coca to district staff members Allen Steinhauser and Floresta said, “FYI There is a ‘fire Ragsdale’ rally planned for Thursday. Would be great to have a counter voice.” It was dated Sep. 12, two days before the meeting.

Staff appeared to monitor the participants on Sep. 14, with Eric Rauch, digital content specialist, updating district spokesperson Nan Kiel and Coca, “They’re still making signs for their little rally.”

A few minutes later, Coca messaged Floresta, “I hope that the threat of a an (sic) anti-rally would bring some folks out.”

During the meeting, Rauch messaged Kiel and Coca, “All the Replace Ragsdale children turned their back during his recognition. They show their true natures.”

Garza said, “Although he is talking about every dissenting voice in the room, it is important to understand that he types this right after several actual children, students in our schools, had just spoken during public comment, including a high school student speaking how he saw himself in the book ‘Flamer,’ a book banned by the district. And then it comes during the superintendent’s remarks, when the superintendent is telling us and those students that we are on the side of evil, and while supporters of the district are calling us pedophiles.”

The staff messages continued.

During Ragsdale’s speech about his decision to remove “Flamer” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” from school libraries, Coca messaged Floresta, “He should also add something like… “I am shocked that so many of you who have been protesting for years about covid, masks, guns, for and against school safety,…would now be here demanding pornography be added to our school libraries. Shocked, I say. It’s almost as if you plan to protest no matter what we do.”

One of the reasons given by the district for moving the line was that the waiting room was crowded.

A reporter from another newspaper emailed Kiel to ask why the change was made, writing “I’ve never seen them do that, even when the lobby is busy.”

Kiel responded that it was due to the large crowd, an assertion that the members of the Coalition said made no sense as multiple messages were sent that day dismissing the small size of the rally.

In a message from Kiel to Coca and Rauch the next day, she noted that at least the Marietta Daily Journal pointed out the small size of the rally.

The group also shared an email written by Floresta to Leroy Chapman, the editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Prior to the rally, the Coalition had notified the district of the planned rally and blind copied members of the media. Maureen Downey of AJC Get Schooled, was one of them and she responded to ask if the group was interested in submitting an opinion column on the concerns mentioned in the email. Downey’s email went to all the recipients.

Floresta wrote, “Despite our performance as a school district, we are also familiar with Maureen’s long-standing elevation of lower-performing metropolitan school districts, while critiquing Cobb at every opportunity…I know we both would like to maintain the working relationship we have built over the last number of years, looking forward how to best do so.”

The ORR did not indicate a response from Chapman.

The Coalition made the messages available in full on its website.

The Courier reached out to the district for comment, and they have not replied as of the publication of this article.

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.