Cobb school board rift over ‘political’ comments exposes divide

The Cobb County School Board narrowly approved a measure ending board member comments at its meetings.



The Cobb County School Board narrowly approved a measure ending board member comments at its meetings.

A divided Cobb County School Board last week approved a controversial proposal to end the practice of allowing members to speak freely at the end of its meetings.

David Chastain, the school board’s chairman, said he introduced the measure because he felt comments made by certain board members over the last few months have become “political.” As an example, Chastain pointed to comments made by board member Dr. Jaha Howard that questioned “the ethics of the commander-in-chief,” referring to President Donald Trump. Chastain also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Howard informed the board that he’d planned to speak more often about “social justice” matters.

The 4-3 vote to approve the measure split along party lines. Democratic school board members Howard, Charisse Davis and David Morgan voted against the proposal while Chastain, David Banks, Brad Wheeler and Randy Scamihorn, all Republicans, voted in favor.

“I understand it’s controversial, but right now it’s seems like the best thing to do with (us) heading into a political year,” Chastain said, referring to 2020 in which four members will be up for re-election.

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At the Aug. 22 meeting, Howard mentioned the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving to what would become known as America. He also mentioned the “horrible racial rhetoric” the alleged El Paso, Texas, gunman harbored before killing 22 people; Cobb residents’ “scare” from news about Sterigenics; and children and families who are impacted by ICE raids.

“We are in a country where we praise leaders who are anything but respectful, responsible and role models,” Howard said at last month’s meeting. “Who’s going to call them out?”

Howard told the AJC his opinions were behind Chastain’s decision to bring the question to a vote.

“We are absolutely throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said.

Howard added other board members have shared information about events at schools in their posts, and their personal thoughts on things that mattered to them.

“It’s been OK because it’s been in line with the majority opinion,” he said. “As soon as we have a discussion on things that make certain board members uncomfortable, we have gone too far.”

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One of those who used the time for board members to comment to express his thoughts on current events is Randy Scamihorn. Scamihorn recently spoke on the number of police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. At the August meeting, Scamihorn told the audience and his fellow members to thank police officers when they see them on the street “because heroes don’t wear capes — they wear badges.”

Scamihorn said he agreed with Chastain’s assessment that recent comments have become “very political.”

“We’re about educating children, not about politics,” he said, adding he will try to find a new way to memorialize fallen police officers.

Charisse Davis, who referred to the board's vote as "censorship," said she attended school board meetings as a Cobb County parent for a long time before she was elected in November and heard previous members speak about things that mattered to them, political or not. Davis at the August meeting called on the Cobb school board to consider hiring a chief equity officer, one of the requests made by Stronger Together, a group of parents, students and teachers who want the school system to address racism in the classroom.

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Davis said she was elected by the parents of the children she represents, and she also said an exchange of ideas among board members should be encouraged.

“That’s why I’m here and I’m not going to stop,” she said. “They can end board comments, but I won’t stop calling out areas where we need to improve.”

Board Vice Chair Brad Wheeler said the decision to end comments doesn’t prevent board members from speaking out on issues on their own social media pages. He said it’s important for members to act in the best interest of the school board.

“This is a bigger thing than just us,” he said. “We shall see how this goes, and hopefully it will be productive.”

Jennifer Susko, a Mableton Elementary School counselor who has advocated for racial equity in Cobb schools, said the board’s decision will lead to frustration and resentment among parents and educators who felt like they were being heard by some board members. She also said Chastain only began expressing concerns about board member comments when Howard and Davis brought up issues of racism.

“Racism is not a political issue, it’s a moral one,” she said. “Advocating for racial justice is about right and wrong, not right or left.”

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