Cobb schools staff acted to silence critics, Teams messages show

Long line outside the Cobb County School District building

Those wishing to speak at public comment have been required to stand in line outside since September when staff coordinated to push critics out of line (Photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

by Rebecca Gaunt

Critics accused the Cobb County School District central office staff of moving September’s public comment sign-up line at the last minute to silence them. Messages obtained by an open records request showed that their suspicions were correct.

The melee that ensued led to minor injuries, including to a high school student, and threats of arrest from the Cobb County School District Police, which intervened.

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Eight staff members, including Chief Strategy and Accountability Officer John Floresta, coordinated the change using Microsoft Teams messaging.

Neither Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, nor Cobb County School District Police Chief Ron Storey responded to the Courier’s questions.

Obtained messages

Julian (Onan) Coca (director of content & marketing) to Floresta:

Also the super knows that tonight will be tougher than the first session, right?

They’ve got “Ragsdale is wrong” shirts

Floresta to Coca:

Yeah he knows

The messages show that the central office staff knew it could create a volatile situation, given the heated debate over removing books from school libraries. 

District spokesperson Nan Kiel to Coca and Eric Rauch (digital content specialist):

Uh oh! There are some signs ready to support Ragsdale (gear up war gif inserted)

Read more here: Chaos and tension at Cobb school board meeting – Cobb County Courier

Jennifer Susko, a vocal critic of district leadership who accused the district of retaliation in November after being subpoenaed in the redistricting lawsuit last year, was the one who obtained the messages. She shared them in full with the Courier.

She helped to organize a “Replace Ragsdale” rally on the day of the September meeting. The group notified the district in advance that they would be there.

Coca to Floresta and Allen Steinhauser (accountability department), Sep. 12, 1:10 p.m.:

FYI There is a “fire Ragsdale “ rally planned for Thursday. Would be great to have a counter voice

The messages were sent over the span of three days, throughout which staff members repeatedly mocked Susko, and Kiel and Coca referred to a parent who had emailed the district as a “disgruntled parent” and “a troll.”

The following messages were exchanged the day of the school board meeting, when the incident occurred. The afternoon work session’s public comment spots were dominated by people speaking in support of Ragsdale.

Rauch to Kiel and Coca on Sep. 14, 2:13 p.m.

They’re still making signs for their little rally.

Floresta to Coca, 2:15 p.m.

We have them outmanned this afternoon [redacted]

Coca to Floresta, 2:16 p.m.

I hope the threat of a an [sic] anti-rally would bring some folks out

Secretary Amanda Chambers to Coca, 5:01 p.m.:

There is over 15 in line already.

Coca to Chambers, 5:09 p.m.:

Are they all bad guys?

Maybe we say the line can’t form until 6:30? (only half kidding.)

Coca to Rauch, Zachary Alderson (communications specialist) and Daniel Vehar  (asst. director of marketing), 5:54 p.m.:

Daniel Vehar and Zachary Alderson when you get back see Amanda…there’s going to be fireworks

Alderson to Coca, Rauch, and Vehar, 6:24 p.m.:

Dan  6:28 we go out

Coca to Rauch, Alderson, Vehar, 6:24 p.m.:

Or 6:27

Alderson to Coca, Rauch, Vehar, 6:26 p.m.:

John said 28

Coca to Rauch, Alderson, Vehar, 6:26 p.m.

whelp. listen to him

Chambers to Vehar, 6:26 p.m.

You on the way

Chambers to Coca, 6:29 p.m.

Here we go!

They are yelling

Coca to Chambers, 6:30 p.m.

Of course

Chambers to Coca, 6:30 p.m.

6:31 p.m: They are screaming at Zack and Dan

Officers just went out

6:32: It’s very elevated 

I can hear them inside

Coca to Chambers, 6:32 p.m.:

Of course

Chambers to Coca:

Media is filling [sic[ all of it

Filming

Coca to Chambers, 6:33 p.m.

Great

None of the messages reference a dangerous situation inside the lobby, which Floresta claimed precipitated Vehar and Alderson running outside with the laptop just as sign up was supposed to begin.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Kiel told the media that staff “moved the sign-in computer from the narrow entrance to the Board room to allow the large crowd easy access.”

Susko was one of the people injured after standing in line for hours to speak. It took her months to obtain the messages through multiple requests as she negotiated the high cost and delays in fulfillment.

The request was an expansion of one she received in November that first indicated the line change was calculated, and that staff had also coordinated to prevent a student who wrote an op-ed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about school book removals from speaking, going so far as to access her personal information.

Read more here: Group accuses Cobb County School District of retaliation against critics 

Joy Ramsingh, an attorney and board member at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, called the messages “damning.”

State law requires school boards to provide an opportunity for public comment. The chairperson of the board can limit the length of time for individual comments, or the number of individuals speaking for or against a certain issue. There are also rules that would permit the board to remove a person for being disruptive, according to Ramsingh.

“What they CAN’T do is restrict comment on the basis of viewpoint. The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to hate their school district. In America, you’re allowed to hate your public officials, and you’re allowed to say so,” she wrote in an email. “Those messages show that the District employees were concerned that too many of the ‘bad guys’ had shown up.”

District’s response following the incident

Parent and member of Cobb Community Care Coalition Micheal Garza emailed Floresta following the incident and accused the district of intentionally instigating the chaos.

Floresta responded to Garza, calling his statement “mischaracterizations, inaccurate narrative, and an inaccurate re-statement of a third party conversation.”

When Post 2 board member Becky Sayler asked Floresta what occurred, he responded, “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.”

Sayler said Floresta had implied to her in a conversation that a dangerous situation had arisen in the lobby, necessitating the move. The Courier previously reported that no such situation was observed by this reporter, who was present for the duration of the events.

When the Courier reached out last year to ask about the September incident, Kiel accused the Courier of inaccurate reporting, but did not provide any specific matters for correction.

Read more here: No clear answers from Cobb County schools about mayhem at September meeting

Despite a sizable office lobby outside the boardroom, the line for public comment has been outside the building since then. That remained the case in January when the board meeting was scheduled the same week as a winter cold snap that closed schools for one day.

Melissa Marten, a parent who lost her opportunity to speak in September as a result of the change, contacted Floresta about the weather and asked if speakers would be allowed to wait inside.

Floresta responded, “We certainly hope to offer an environment that is both safe and convenient, but when the behavior of some jeopardizes the safety of students, students, staff, and the public who attend Board meetings, we will prioritize safety.”

The messages obtained also show staff preparing to respond to members of the news media who were questioning the unusual change.

Rauch to Kiel and Coca, 7:03 p.m.

Cassidy [Alexander, AJC education reporter] was asking about the relocate for comments. Be prepared to answer.

Coca to Kiel and Rauch:

We had a lot of people. We were trying to keep the process orderly.

In the three-day span the messages cover leading up to the decision to move the line, Floresta, Rauch, Kiel and Coca also extensively discussed plans to unveil Chris Ragsdale’s award from the American Heart Association for superintendent of the year, a recognition of the district’s fundraising, with intention to antagonize critics.

Rauch to Kiel and Coca, Sep. 13, 8:40 a.m.

I like having his name in the title. A subtle twist of the knife to the detractors.

Coca to Floresta,  8:49 a.m.

We like having his name in the title because it is a subtle dig…

Coca to Kiel and Rauch, 8:53 a.m.

I love that!

“Our Boss has Heart! Chris Ragsdale named Superintendent of the Year!”

Oh…they would hate that.

Messages exchanged also provided insight into how staff runs the district’s Facebook account.

Irritated by some of the critical comments about the award on social media, Vehar crafted a response that Coca characterized as a “good burn.” Floresta signed off on the post.

Coca to Floresta and Vehar, 7:51 p.m.

Make them upsetthat [sic] the super agrees with them

This is not the first time district staff have been under scrutiny.

In December, the Courier published an article about Floresta, Coca, and Rauch’s links to the alleged anti-LGBTQ hate group American Vision. 

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