That’s concerning to Heather Tolley-Bauer, a parent and co-founder of Watching the Funds-Cobb, a group that monitors the district’s spending.
“It’s a fleecing of the taxpayers,” she said. “It has been and it will continue to be that.”
In invoices dating back to November 2022, the district has been charged $957,000 by Freeman, Mathis & Gary LLP for work related to the case, records show. It has also paid an additional $10,000 per month to the firm for “strategic advice,” which brings the total to more than $1 million as of early October.
The AJC reviewed invoices related to the case obtained by Watching the Funds-Cobb via open records requests in May, July and October. The AJC also obtained from the district a ledger of payments made to the law firm that reflected the same total as the invoices obtained by Watching the Funds-Cobb.
Asked about the expenditures, the law firm stated Cobb has been in litigation against “a well-funded team” of lawyers from six national groups.
“Defending taxpayers from frivolous litigation is expensive, particularly a case which has involved hundreds of thousands of documents, numerous depositions and nationally recognized redistricting experts,” the statement read.
Even before the lawsuit, the school system was criticized for its redistricting efforts. With every new U.S. census, school boards can redraw the voting districts that decide who will elect board members. The Cobb board came under fire in 2021 for hiring a private firm with little experience in redistricting, without going through a competitive bid process and without knowing exactly how much the process would cost, critics said. The board’s Republican majority voted to hire the firm and later voted to endorse the final map, with its three Democrats at the time dissenting.
Criticism of the district’s involvement in the lawsuit recently came to a head when an update about the lawsuit from the attorneys was sent directly to families through the district’s learning system. The message lambasted “leftist political activists,” sparking backlash from local Democrats and some parents. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican former state representative from Cobb, is a managing director of Freeman Mathis Decisions, the government relations team within Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP.
In response to questions from the AJC, the law firm doubled down on the political rhetoric.
“That agreement is an elaborate ruse by which the plaintiffs will present an unopposed new map that ensures their favored political party (Democrats) takes control of the Cobb school board,” the statement from Freeman, Mathis & Gary read. “(T)he School District will continue to submit to the court legal arguments and expert testimony demonstrating that the current map passed by the state Legislature is lawful.”
In response to allegations that it’s colluding with the voting rights groups, attorneys for the Cobb Board of Elections said in a recent statement that the district “made a massive blunder in its litigation strategy that cost it the ability to defend the redistricting maps it created,” and then proceeded to make “outlandish accusations ... it knows to be fake.”
State lawmakers will convene a special session after Thanksgiving to redraw congressional maps to add a majority Black district west of Atlanta, also based in Cobb County, after a judge found the map created in 2021 to be discriminatory. The settlement agreement between the Cobb Board of Elections and the voting rights groups would allow lawmakers the chance to redraw the school board maps as well.
The next Cobb County school board election is May 21, 2024.