The vote to select the 2020 chair and vice chair for the Cobb County School Board took a contentious turn after a black woman nominated for a chairman seat was voted down by white board members, raising questions of racial and gender bias.
The school board, made up of four white members and three black, split on racial lines in voting down the nomination of Charisse Davis, a black woman, for chair or vice chair of the body. Instead, the board named Brad Wheeler chairman and David Banks vice chairman — both are white. Last year, Wheeler served as vice chairman.
Board member Jaha Howard, who is black and who nominated Davis, said at Tuesday’s called meeting that Cobb County is a diverse county, but the choice for board chair and vice chair continues to “swap hands between the same people.”
Davis said she has expressed interest in the past about serving as board chair. Howard said his desire to nominate Davis has been met with concerns that she needs more experience or that she ruffles “the wrong feathers.” Davis and Howard both started their tenure on the board in 2019.
Howard questioned whether the board’s rejection of Davis was due to racial or gender bias, or whether the majority is taking its cues from the Cobb County Republican Party. All four white board members are also Republicans.
Population estimates taken by the U.S. Census Bureau show Cobb County’s population was 756,864 in July 2018: About 52% identify as white-not Hispanic or Latino, followed by 29% black, 13% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. Respondents can choose more than one race or ethnicity. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects the county will become majority minority by 2050.
The Cobb school district is a majority-minority system. As of June, 37% of its 111,722 students identified as white, 30% as black, 22% as Hispanic, 6% as Asian, 4% as two or more races, and 1% identifying as Pacific Islander or Native American, according to its website.
This isn’t the first time Cobb school board members have been criticized for ignoring issues of racism within the district ranks. Stronger Together, a grassroots organization made up of Cobb students, parents, teachers and staff members, have pushed for the district to address incidents of racism and other forms of bigotry they have recounted to school board members.
Davis told the AJC that when she asked about the possibility of becoming board chair in 2019, she was told that no one is elected to the position in their first term and that it “is a lot of work.”
“Would you tell a man that? No,” she said.
She also said the vote proves the school board majority doesn’t value the perspective of younger, “fresh” voices.
“This is a locking out of anyone who is a Democrat,” she said. “And with that, that means locking out people of color and younger people.”
Wheeler said the Republican board members do not get “marching orders” from the local party. The decision on who serves as chair and vice chair are individual decisions made by board members, he said.
“It is [about] who the makeup is and who the board majority has confidence in,” he said.
Wheeler added that he would encourage board members to “earn the respect of the other board members.”
Chastain, who served as board chair in 2019, said it’s frustrating that “certain individuals are making such a big deal” about the decision to elect Wheeler and Banks. The school board votes for members who have evidence of leadership and a “willingness to represent the board in a positive way,” he said. A person’s race, gender or political affiliation do not factor into those discussions, Chastain said.
He also blasted the notion that he and other GOP members are working at the direction of the Cobb Republican Party. “We are not sitting around with the county leaders and coming up with plans,” he said.
Board member Randy Scamihorn said his vote for the chair and vice chair is based on his 40 years of experience in leadership and management.
“My decisions are personal and I try to make it for the betterment of the board and the school district,” he added.
David Morgan, the third black board member, did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but told the AJC he would have supported Davis’s nomination. Morgan said he will suggest at an upcoming meeting that the members consider establishing a new process “that would make it difficult for one or two members to monopolize the position of board chair.”
Morgan has been on the school board for 12 years. While he has served as vice chair, he said he has been nominated to serve as board chair, but “never had the opportunity” to serve in that role. He said the Cobb school board has never had a person of color serve in that capacity.
“That has not happened and that is unacceptable,” he said.
School board member David Banks did not return calls for comment.
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