Audience members removed as John Floresta’s contract renewed by Cobb school board

Jennifer Susko being removed from Cobb school board meeting by police

Photo by Rebecca Gaunt: Jennifer Susko removed from meeting by police

By Rebecca Gaunt

John Floresta, the chief strategy and accountability officer for Cobb County School District and a member of Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s executive cabinet, received a contract extension through 2025 despite protests from the audience that led to the removal of two audience members. 

Jennifer Susko and Melissa Marten, along with a few others, booed and called out to fire Floresta as the vote took place. Once approved, there were calls of “Shame!” Chairman Randy Scamihorn called for their removal and they were escorted out to the lobby by officers. 

When the list of executive cabinet contract extensions was presented, Post 3 board member Leroy Tre’ Hutchins made a motion to remove an employee identified as 674. Post 2 board member Becky Sayler and Post 6 board member Nichelle Davis supported Hutchins’ motion, but it failed without support from any of the Republican board members. The complete list of extensions passed 4-3.

The Courier reached out to identify the executive staff member they tried to remove, but Sayler said she could not comment or confirm the identity.

Floresta’s department has been under scrutiny since the release of Microsoft Teams messages showing that he and his staff coordinated to move the public comment line last September to silence critics, pressured local media for positive coverage of the district, joked about hitting on students, and accessed student records inappropriately.

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

John Floresta at the September board meeting (Photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

Susko and Marten were in the line when it was abruptly moved just as sign-up was to open. The situation became ugly as those who had waited hours inside tried to hold their spots and others, who were not in the original line, tried to sign up. Marten, a Post 5 resident, lost her spot after waiting hours to speak. 

Both had participated in the “Replace Ragsdale” rally held in the parking lot that afternoon and were wearing red shirts with “Replace Ragsdale” emblazoned on the front. The Teams messages revealed that district staff were complaining to each other about their presence outside.

Susko and Marten are members of Cobb Community Care Coalition, the group that obtained the open records with the Teams messages and made them public earlier this year. They, along with other community members who were caught up in the scuffle, have spoken monthly at the meetings requesting disciplinary action for staff involved. They have also lodged complaints with the head of human relations Keeli Bowen.

During her public comment about the September ordeal, and again while the contract vote was taken, Marten held up an enlarged photo of the district lobby, taken prior to the abrupt line move. 

Employees Daniel Vehar and Zach Alderson, both part of the message exchanges, ran sign up. Melissa Marten was unable to regain her spot (Photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

Immediately after the incident, which caused injuries and drew on-site police officers to intervene, Floresta and district spokesperson Nan Kiel told media and parents there had been an unsafe situation and crowding that necessitated the move. The photo of a calm lobby contradicts the claim, and the messages released in the open records request showed that district staff believed there were too many “bad guys” in line. Julian Onan Coca, director of marketing, warned staff there were going to be “fireworks” and the communications team debated the exact minute to grab the laptop used for sign up and run outside.

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

Jennifer Susko and Jenny Peterson attend a rally in the parking lot prior to the retaliatory line move in September (Photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, was shoved into a table during the September line fiasco.

In March, he used his public comment to criticize the “unprofessional and unethical actions by players in our communications department” and asked the superintendent to hold them responsible.

Ragsdale has not responded to requests for comment and all the involved staff members remain in their positions.

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

The first batch of internal messages was made public in November, and a second more extensive request released in February. Nonetheless, the district stuck to its story when asked for comment by 11Alive News on March 21, saying, “There was no attempt, or effect, to limit their ability to speak.”

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.