Cobb County schools budget hearing beset by ‘technical difficulties’

The Cobb County School Board will hold another budget hearing Thursday after the public wasn’t given an opportunity to view last week’s meeting.

The hearing for the fiscal year 2022 budget, set for 10:30 a.m., was scheduled because the district did not live-stream or record last week’s hearing due to technical difficulties, said system spokeswoman Nan Kiel.

Viewers will be able to watch Thursday’s meeting on the district’s website. The hearing will allow residents to comment on the district’s $1.2 billion budget.

The Georgia Open Meetings Act requires governments to make public all meetings that have a quorum of members of a governing body in attendance. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Cobb school board meetings have been streamed live online. The public has not been allowed to physically attend meetings.

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Starting in July, members of the public will be allowed to enter the board room to watch meetings in person, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said last week.

Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the Cobb school board has a pattern of “not getting their act together with open meetings.” He said the board and the district need to review open meetings and open records laws to understand what their responsibilities are to the public.

“The very fact that this meeting took place without the ability to know what was said or someone observing what was being said is clearly a serious open government problem,” he said.

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Cobb parent Heather Tolley-Bauer said her organization, Watching the Funds - Cobb, had five people speak at Thursday’s hearing. She said it was “concerning and frustrating” that the hearing is not available to view online.

“The budget forum being made public is an important part of stakeholders being involved in the budget process, and it’s extremely important that stakeholders know what is happening and how the budget is put together,” she said.

Tolley-Bauer said she filed a complaint with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.

“We take this seriously because this is an organization that frequently puts up barriers to participate in meetings,” she said, referring to the school board.

This isn’t the first time the Cobb school district has violated state open meeting laws. In August and September, the district did not air public comments during the live stream of its virtual meetings.