Critics call foul after uncovering Cobb school district’s $50 million event center plans

The site map of Cobb County School District's event center

By Rebecca Gaunt

Watching the Funds-Cobb, a parent-led financial watchdog group, announced Thursday that an anonymous source provided the group with the plans for the Cobb County School District’s $50 million event center next to the headquarters on Glover Street.

Heather Tolley-Bauer, a parent and co-founder of Watching the Funds-Cobb, declined to reveal the source who provided the files, which included the floor plans created by CGLS Architects, calling them a concerned citizen.

Critics have asked for months about the lack of a feasibility plan, needs assessment, or usage plan.

Tolley-Bauer dunked on the project again during the work session public comments over the revelation that the 190,000 square-foot facility includes a 148,400 square-foot basketball arena and concert venue. Attendees will also need to be shuttled on buses from an offsite location due to a lack of parking, according to a letter the group was asked not to share publicly.

The onsite parking in the plans allows for 1,582 parking spaces, though there is a capacity for 8,000 people. 

“The current plans to construct an 8,000-seat arena and events center provide no educational benefit to our students and would put a significant strain on the surrounding neighborhood and nearby infrastructure, including traffic and parking impacts. When looking at other facilities of this scale, the operating and maintenance costs are large and often become a taxpayer burden, and there has been no transparency or clarity regarding these ongoing plans. I would honestly be for this proposal if it provided an educational or community benefit, but honestly, today, I see none of that. Instead, I see a taxpayer-subsidized events facility that does more harm than good,” said Matt Stigall, a transit advocate with A Better Cobb, in a press release from Watching the Funds.

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale has touted the project as a graduation venue and a multipurpose education facility for academic and instructional purposes. At a recent meeting he chastised critics, asking for empathy for students who have had to pick and choose which family members could attend due to limited space.

During her comment, Tolley-Bauer said to the board, “For more than a year, we, along with other concerned citizens, and some of you, have asked the Superintendent to share the details of the $50 million event center. He refused. So, the details were sent to us by a concerned citizen.

“Now we understand why you wanted to keep this project a secret for as long as you could. We were right. You’re wasting tens of millions of our dollars on a building that will hold graduations but won’t help our kids graduate.”

The plans also include a laundry room, locker rooms, and 41,801 square feet of conference and banquet rooms.

In April, Watching the Funds released documents from an open records request that showed Cobb County School District rented the convocation facilities from Kennesaw State University for less than $45,000 for nine days in 2023 to host 15 graduation ceremonies. Allatoona and McEachern High Schools hold graduations on their own campuses. Documents for 2022, show the district was charged less than $42,000.

Read more here: Public pushback mounting against Cobb schools graduation/event center 

The project passed 6-1 in March 2023 when Ragsdale pitched the project to the school board. Post 2 board member Becky Sayler was the lone vote of opposition, which she attributed to a lack of details and data to support the project. When the construction manager at risk contract was approved 5-2 earlier this year, Post 6 board member Nichelle Davis also voted against it. She later stated her change of heart was because no information supporting the need was ever provided.

“Why does a taxpayer-funded school district need this capacity for school events when our tax dollars have already built concert halls and gyms on our campuses, as well as that Civic Center down the street,” Tolley-Bauer asked. “We don’t understand why you prioritized conference rooms and suites over classrooms and labs. Are you here to educate our kids or run an event management business?” 

Tolley-Bauer pointed to the Macon Centreplex in Macon-Bibb County as an example of a similar taxpayer-funded facility that has experienced financial issues. It was losing anywhere from $1.7 to $2.1 million annually before a third-party event management company came on board in 2016. Since then, management said it has had annual deficits of $600,000. Maintenance and updates were funded by SPLOST. 

In the press release, Cobb resident Lisa Ditthardt said, “The initial cost to taxpayers will be at least $50 million, most likely a lot more. Once they build it, the costs to staff, insure, operate, and maintain the building will all fall to the CCSD general fund. Taxes will proportionally increase. Wouldn’t a better use of our tax dollars be to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes so our children get a better education and alleviate some stress on teachers at the same time?” 

At the conclusion of her time, Tolley-Bauer thanked the superintendent, who was on his phone, for his diligent attention to the matter.

“Pathetic,” she said as she left the podium.

Watching the Funds-Cobb provided the documents in the release, Read them here:

Event Center Drawings

Parking Summary:

Floor Plans:


Graduation Rental Agreements with KSU 2022 & 2023

Other Information 

KSU rental for other events besides graduations from 1/11/22-2/7/24 total $12,660

Watching the Funds spreadsheet:

The Courier has reached out to the district 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.