‘Blatant misconduct’: Parents want accountability for Cobb schools staff

CCSD staffer Daniel Vehar manned the public signup table after staff coordinated to block district critics.

PHOTO: CCSD staffer Daniel Vehar manned the public signup table after staff coordinated to block district critics (photo by Rebecca Gaunt).

by Rebecca Gaunt

Who is holding the people in charge of accountability accountable?

That is the question parents have nearly three weeks after Microsoft Teams messages exchanged by the communications staff in the Office of Strategy & Accountability, led by John Floresta, were made public at February’s Cobb County school board meeting.

Parents said they want an investigation, and possibly even termination of employment, for Floresta and others who colluded to prevent district critics from speaking at the September meeting, inappropriately accessed student files, and pressured news media for positive coverage.

Read more here: Cobb schools staff pressured media, accessed student files inappropriately, documents show – Cobb County Courier

No one from the district has responded to the matter publicly. Parents who emailed complaints to Keeli Bowen, the head of human resources, told the Courier that they are not satisfied with her response.

The Courier reached out to Bowen on March 4 and received the same response on March 7 that the parents did: “Thank you for your email. Although I cannot speak to individual personnel matters, I wanted to confirm that I have received your email.” 

Since the messages were initially made public, the Courier has reached out to Superintendent Chris Ragsdsale, CCSD Chief of Police Ron Storey, and board Chair Randy Scamihorn. None have responded to requests for comment.

But the parents say they at least want an acknowledgement of what happened and an apology from the district at the March 21 board meeting.

A frustrated mother, whose high schooler was shoved out of line in September, told the Courier she didn’t get a response from Bowen until she emailed again and asked why there had been no statement from anyone at district headquarters.

Jennifer Moore wrote in her Feb. 29 email to Bowen and the senior Director of Human Resources Kevin Kiger, “…my real issue is with how this decision to move the public comment line from its usual place, where I and others had been lining up peacefully for hours prior to the meeting, to an outdoor location at the last minute with no regard for the safety issues that might arise. In the struggle to obtain a position in line, my sixteen year old child was intentionally pushed by a member of the group that had been waiting outside and nearly fell. I was aggrieved by this action at the time, and more so by the lackadaisical attitude of the CCSD police officers nearby, but upon finding out that this situation was set up intentionally to strip people like my child of their voices at this meeting, I am absolutely infuriated.”

Parent Katie Kroll wrote to Bowen on March 2, “This is unacceptable and was NOT done for the safety of the public.” 

Melissa Marten, who lost her spot in September, wants answers at the March school board meeting, but said her expectations are low.

“I can’t in good faith ask people to come voice their concerns at board meetings when I can’t guarantee their safety. Which is absurd,” she said.

Jennifer Susko, a former employee of CCSD and vocal critic of leadership, filed the open records request after the public comment sign up line was abruptly moved last September after people had waited for hours to speak. The messages were exchanged on Sep. 12, Sep. 13, and Sep. 14, 2023. 

Read more here: Cobb schools staff acted to silence critics, Teams messages show

The Teams messages not only contained evidence that staff coordinated to move signup because too many “bad guys” were in line, but they also coordinated to prevent high school student Lily Mosbacher, who had published an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the chilling effects of Georgia’s divisive concepts law in her classes, from speaking at the meeting. 

Julian Coca, director of content and marketing, acknowledged accessing her personal information to find the name of the enrolling parent.

Mosbacher’s mom, Jennifer, is an appointed member of the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration. Messages obtained showed that district staff attempted to pressure AJC editors to add a disclaimer to Mosbacher’s column, stating that her mother is a “Cobb County democrat politician.”

“My original article created a lot of tension because they thought that my mom made me write it and that’s so not true,” Lily, an aspiring journalist, told the Courier. “I’m a 16-year-old and I wrote an article that got published in the AJC and you’d think they’d be proud of that.”

Micheal Garza, a cofounder of Cobb Community Care Coalition alongside Susko, first approached the Mosbachers to alert them to what had been found in the records request. He also emailed Bowen and his board representative David Chastain with 43 of the messages found that “provide clear evidence of this misconduct.”

To Chastain, he wrote, “I include you here because all of these things happening related to this student have been initiated by, encouraged, and enabled by John Floresta, an employee whose contract is controlled by the Board of Education. He had a student monitored, potentially a violation of federal law under FERPA and PPRA, and directed employees to take actions unrelated to the education of that student as a result of that monitoring. It is clear that he’s been given a wide latitude of freedom in his position and he’s exploited that.” 

The Mosbachers have also been stonewalled in their search for answers.

Their request for a meeting with the Pope High School principal was declined and they were referred to the district office. 

Mark Mosbacher wants to know how Floresta found out his daughter was even thinking about speaking the day before the meeting. He believes someone at Pope communicated that information to the district office. According to Lily, administrators at the high school spoke to her teachers after the article was published.

Lily’s parents emailed the Pope principal to ask, and the principal forwarded the email to Floresta.

But Floresta’s response pertained to the rule that speakers under the age of 18 must have a parent present, which “wasn’t the question,” Mark said.

Lily is ready to move on from her article, but she’s not done fighting against what she views as censorship in the classroom in the form of banning books.

I wrote an article about censorship, and here you are trying to censor me,” she said. I think a lot of teachers are censoring what they say, self-censoring on things like recommending books.”

For her, the most disturbing staff messages are the ones joking about picking up commenters in the line.

“That’s gross,” she said.

Mark said he now worries about Lily being surveilled or treated differently at school.

“There should be an investigation. “If I said those things on messages, I’d be fired,” he said.

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.