Questions raised about Cobb school board hiring firm to redraw district maps

Board member Jaha Howard speaks during a Cobb County School Board meeting in Marietta on Thursday, July 15, 2021. This school board meeting was the first full meeting to allow the public in to view without restrictions since February 2020. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Board member Jaha Howard speaks during a Cobb County School Board meeting in Marietta on Thursday, July 15, 2021. This school board meeting was the first full meeting to allow the public in to view without restrictions since February 2020. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The political fight over redistricting is already coming to the surface in Cobb County where questions are being raised about the process used by the school board, which hired a law firm to redraw its district maps.

Board members last week voted 4-3 along party lines to use Taylor English Duma LLP to redraw its seven districts through a sole source contract. Republican Earl Ehrhart, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, is the chief executive of subsidiary Taylor English Decisions.

Legislators are required to set new political boundaries after every decennial census so that each district represents roughly the same number of people. Georgia has had a population increase of 1 million people since 2010.

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School Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn introduced the request to hire Taylor English Duma at the Aug. 19 work session and meeting. He said he did not solicit bids from other firms because the company has a history of working with both Democrats and Republicans.

“We are trying to make sure we have a firm that knows what we need to do,” he said.

Scamihorn and his fellow Republican members — Brad Wheeler, David Chastain and David Banks — voted in favor of the proposal, while Democratic members Charisse Davis, Jaha Howard and Leroy “Tre” Hutchins opposed it.

The Democrats criticized Scamihorn for not seeking bids from additional companies and asking them to vote on the request without providing more details about the services the firm would provide or the cost of the contract.

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Cobb parent Heather Tolley-Bauer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was “extremely disappointing” for Scamihorn to ask board members to hire a firm without knowing how much it would cost taxpayers.

“In what world is it OK for board members to have no information and then be asked to spend an undisclosed amount of money to hire any vendor without being properly prepared?” said Tolley-Bauer, a member of the grassroots organization Watching the Funds - Cobb.

Scamihorn told the AJC this week that hiring a firm for redistricting falls outside the district’s procurement process, so he did not have to solicit multiple bids. A contract with Taylor English Duma will be brought back before the board for final approval, the chairman said.

Democratic board member Charisse Davis said she is concerned about the firm’s consulting arm, Taylor English Decisions, and its involvement with previous redistricting work. According to the Arizona Mirror, questions were raised about the firm’s lack of experience in the process after it bid on redistricting in that state.

Taylor English Decisions specializes in economic development and government strategies, according to its website.

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Board member Jaha Howard also asked if politics were involved in Scamihorn’s decision because he did not disclose that Ehrhart is CEO of Taylor English Decisions, the subsidiary company whose work was questioned in Arizona.

“That kind of thing is something that erodes trust in a situation where we are trying to build trust,” he said.

Ehrhart, who did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment, served in the Georgia General Assembly for three decades before retiring in 2018. His wife, Ginny Ehrhart, succeeded him.

State Rep. David Wilkerson, a Democrat from Powder Springs, said the Cobb County legislative delegation will review and ultimately decide any boundary reconfiguration for school board, as well as the county commission seats. Cities are allowed to redraw council districts or wards themselves under the state’s Home Rule provision, Wilkerson said.

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Once the delegation approves the maps, they will be voted on by the entire state legislature. Wilkerson said the Republican majority’s approval of the law firm without considering the concerns raised by the Democrats “was probably not the best way to start the redistricting process.”

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have to come up with a compromise among the Democrats and the Republicans,” he said.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican who lives in Marietta, told the AJC that the school board will have to determine its level of comfort with paying for the law firm to redraw its maps. He said it wasn’t unusual for the board to hire the firm for the process.

“Anything that was usual 20 years ago is not normal now because the whole landscape’s changed,” said Tippins, a former Cobb Cobb School Board member.

AJC reporters Maya Prabhu and Mark Niesse contributed to this story.