Cobb schools staff pressured media, accessed student files inappropriately, documents show

Cobb County School District official next to sign criticizing the superintendent

by Rebecca Gaunt

More than 700 documents returned as part of an open records request have revealed disturbing messages exchanged by Cobb County School District staff in the central office.

The Microsoft Teams messages show that staff pressured media outlets regarding coverage of the district. They also accessed a student’s personal information as part of an effort to prevent her from speaking at a board meeting.

John Floresta, the chief of strategy and accountability, and members of his department were involved in the exchanges.

The Courier previously reported on the messages obtained in which staff members coordinated to prevent people from speaking critically of the superintendent at the September meeting.

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

Jennifer Susko, a former employee and co-founder of Cobb Community Care Coalition, filed the request. The documents were shared in full with the Courier.

The request was an expansion of the one that was fulfilled in November, which first revealed district staff discussing high school student Lily Mosbacher. She published an editorial criticizing the district for removing books in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The following messages were exchanged Tuesday Sep. 12., and referenced Ehsan Kattoula, assistant superintendent of accountability.

Julian Onan Coca (director of marketing) to Nan Kiel (district spokesperson) and Eric Rauch (digital content specialist), Sep. 12 10:38 a.m.:

Ehsan figured out that the person who wrote Maureen’s [Downey, AJC] article is the daughter of one of the Board of Elections members! lol. Can you email the same editor that Ty sent us to and ask him to add an editorial note to the article explaining that? “In Full transparency, this guest editorial was written by the daughter of a democrat politician in Cobb County who is also being sued by the SPLC.” 

Kiel to Coca and Rauch, 11:56 a.m.

Do we want to reference why they are being sued? (Using your child to fight your battles.) [David Schwimmer shame gif inserted]

Coca instructed Kiel and Rauch to send him the AJC email for Floresta’s approval.

Mosbacher’s mother, Jennifer Mosbacher, is a member of the Cobb Board of Elections and Registration. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) named the board as a defendant in its lawsuit to prevent the use of electoral maps alleged to be racially gerrymandered by the Taylor English law firm the school district hired to draw them. Though not named as a defendant, the school district voluntarily intervened in the lawsuit to defend the maps.

In another message from Coca to Kiel, he acknowledged checking the student’s records to obtain the name of the enrolling parent.

Local media

The Marietta Daily Journal also drew the ire of staff when it published the article Cobb educators say they dumped Bowl in fear of losing their jobs by reporter Joel Elliott about the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl.

Rauch to Kiel and Coca, Sep. 14, 10:01 a.m.:

It would appear that the MDJ now has their own Maureen Downey [AJC Get Schooled columnist] in Joel Elliott. How progressive…

Coca to Floresta, 10:04 a.m.:

We need to tell mdj if they’re going to run bullshit stories like the hrrb one – we’re done helping them out

Unsurprisingly, the Courier was also discussed negatively in the messages. The district has publicly refused to participate in its stories since 2021. Kiel routinely responds to inquiries from it claiming the district has “ongoing concerns with accuracy in reporting.”

The district has never requested a correction or retraction.

Coca to Felica Wagner (Cobb Schools Foundation), Sep. 12, 1:26 p.m.:

We DO NOT deal with the Cobb Courier. I do not want to put that in an email. Any way we can tell Wellstar that we don’t want to push our campaign out through them? MDJ, AJC, East Cobb News, East Cobber, WSB are all fine…but NOT Courier.

Thirty minutes later, Coca reached out to Floresta to confirm the directive.

Floresta to Coca, 2:26 p.m.:

100% yes. Not an outlet we interact with

Messages about a student

On Wednesday, staff members messaged about Mosbacher again.

Floresta to Coca, Sep. 13, 3:19 p.m.:

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 no parent, they can’t speak

Coca then messaged seven additional staff to alert them to watch out for the student.

Coca to Zachary Alderson, Daniel Vehar, Amanda Chambers, Bill Johnson, David Owen, Rauch, and Kiel, 3:22 p.m.:

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.

David Owen (video services team lead) to Alderson, Coca, Kiel, Vehar, Johnson, Rauch, Chambers, 3:24 p.m.:

Definitely approach cautiously! One of the narratives still floating around is that the District shuts down opposing views.

Rauch to Alderson, Coca, Kiel, Vehar, Johnson, Chambers, 3:24 p.m.:

It’s a rule, David Owen. One we’ve needed to enforce before with the Wheeler name change group.

They’ll still gripe of course.

Owen responded:

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not favoring their speaking, just saying tact is in order

Also, allowing a kid to speak denies a taxpaying adult the opportunity.

Rauch replied to the group,

Absolutely. That’s why we use Zach for such things.

The conversation then shifted to jokes about picking up public commenters.

Kiel to Alderson, Coca, Vehar, Owens, Johnson, Rauch, Chambers, 3:54 p.m.:

Zach, please don’t try to pick up public commenters.


Listen the beard has some kind of magic, I can’t help if the ladies love it ♂

Parent Micheal Garza, who co-founded the group Cobb Community Care Coalition with Susko, was not amused.

“When a local student has her work published in such a prestigious publication like the AJC, the district should recognize it as an accomplishment worthy of celebration. As a fellow parent, I know the tremendous pride her parents must have felt in that moment. That district employees instead viewed her as a threat and chose to respond by monitoring her and pulling her student records is outrageous. Making inappropriate jokes about an employee “picking up” students in the line for public comment is disgusting. How can any parent feel our children are safe in our classrooms when employees that have unrestricted access to our kids are doing these things in private?” he said.

It’s unknown where Floresta got the information she planned to speak the next day. Mosbacher never signed up to speak at the meeting. 

Emails to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Susko, a vocal critic of the district, was motivated to make the open records requests after September’s public comment debacle, which the district falsely claimed was for safety reasons.

Her first request, which she made public in December, revealed that Floresta had emailed AJC editor LeRoy Chapman to apply pressure not to publish a potential op-ed from her group, which is critical of district leadership.

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

Floresta wrote, “Despite our performance as a school district, we are also familiar with Maureen’s [Downey] 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 expanded request, which she received in February, showed that Kiel and Coca collaborated on an email to pressure Eric Sturgis, the AJC education editor, to add a note to Mosbacher’s piece that “the guest editorial was written by the daughter of a Cobb County democrat politician.”

The scope of the ORR did not include a response from Sturgis, but no note has been added to the article.

The discussion about Lily Mosbacher continued the next day. Messages indicated that Sturgis responded that he and Downey were unaware of the connection. Though the messages are redacted, they seem to reference Jennifer Mosbacher and dates of her term on the board.

Kiel to Coca, Sep. 14, 1:54 p.m.:

Are we sure that is her mother?

Coca to Kiel:

Ask ehsan

But the enrolling parent is [redacted]

And that’s the name of the member of the board of elections

Social media

The strange antics of the communications department have extended to social media.

The same week as the September meeting, the district unveiled Superintendent Chris Ragdale’s recognition by the American Heart Association as the Superintendent of the Year, an award based on fundraising by students participating in the Kids Heart Challenge.

Discussion of the rollout focused on antagonizing Ragsdale’s 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…

The rollout of the award, which received criticism from the community for seemingly misleading people to believe that he was awarded AASA’s National Superintendent of the Year, included a debate over font size.

Kiel complained that Alderson used “mice type” to place Superintendent of the Year on the graphic and pushed for larger font size. The final result placed “by the American Heart Association” in a significantly smaller type below.

This was not the only example of a misleading rollout of an award. Last week, just as the messages were about to go public, the media department put out a release announcing the superintendent’s recognition by the National Superintendents Association (AASA) as an inspiring voice. The bizarre announcement lacked quotes from AASA and no such award was noted on the website.

Asked for comment, James Minichello, director of communications, told the Courier he was recognized with 14 other superintendents at the AASA conference by Paper, a vendor and conference partner.

Ava Paydar, Paper’s corporate communications manager, confirmed Ragsdale was one of the superintendents interviewed for the leadership voice series, but the “interview series itself does not involve the AASA organization.”

Though the media department has since reworded its posts on the website and social media to say that he was recognized at the conference rather than by the AASA, the incorrect graphic remains on the website. The announcement still contains no reference to Paper.

The Courier has reached out to Ragsdale and Chief Human Resources Officer Keeli Bowen 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.