MARIETTA — Thursday’s decision by a split Cobb school board to remove board remarks from the end of the body’s monthly public meetings raised eyebrows, but board Chairman David Chastain said there’s more to the story.
During school board debate Thursday, Chastain, board member Jaha Howard and others argued for nearly two hours about removing board comments and whether or not the chairman was simply attempting to muzzle certain board members.
The comment ban does not affect the public comment section of meetings, when members of the public are free to speak for an allotted time.
Chastain told the MDJ on Friday his decision was based on increasing evidence that certain board members would aim to disrupt board business with matters unrelated to Cobb students.
“It’s not my job to censor or to police my colleagues, so to me, I wanted to bring up the fact that maybe we should rethink the (board) comments,” he said.
Chastain said that he and the three other Republicans on the board — not the Democrats — received handwritten notes last month from Howard, indicating that he would be speaking out more publicly on “major issues” that face the district.
“You will notice that I will be more vocal about matters of safety, achievement and equity. This comes from a place of love for our children of Cobb,” one of the notes obtained by the MDJ reads in part. “I trust you will stand with me in courage and truth.”
The notes to Chastain and the other Republican board members, David Banks, Brad Wheeler and Randy Scamihorn, plus Howard’s comments at the August board meeting pushed Chastain to bring up the removal of board comments, he said.
The chairman pointed out specifically that Howard had taken shots at elected officials, from President Donald Trump and down to unnamed Cobb County officials, for being “unethical.”
“We were getting to the point where we were seeing a partisan-type flavor to the board comments,” Chastain said. “I just felt, for the reputation of the Cobb County school board and the Cobb County School District and to have the example of good board governance that reflects the rest of what’s so good about Cobb County, that we would eliminate the board comments.”
At the August meeting, Howard mentioned that gun violence was occurring “in our own backyard,” urged the board to take a stand on cancer-causing emissions at a Sterigenics plant in Smyrna, said some families in the district have been separated or otherwise affected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and noted the anniversary of the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving on American soil.
On Friday, Howard told the MDJ he stood by his comments, including those made about elected officials. Whether they are political or not, he said, they were spoken with students in mind.
Students live near the Sterigenics plant, ICE raids affect some students’ ability to focus at school and the president sets a widely visible example for people across the country and in Cobb, Howard said.
“It’s directly related. I spend a lot of time in our schools, and we teach our kids every day about character and leadership, and it would be great if the adults among them were demonstrating the very thing that we’re trying to teach our children to exemplify,” he said.
Contrary to Chastain’s comments, Howard said he sent personal notes addressing his increasing “boldness” to all board members.
“These things really matter, and I was trying to urge our fellow board members to be more vocal,” he said. “I didn’t get any response, but I guess our chair thought the best way to respond was at the board meeting with a surprise agenda item.”
Leroy “Tre” Hutchins, who plans to run for a seat on school board, was in the audience Thursday and said he was discouraged by what he saw. Hutchins, who plans to run as a Democrat, said the decision didn’t frighten him for the future of the board, but the tone of the more than 90 minutes of discussion did.
“It doesn’t scare me off, but I won’t tolerate that,” Hutchins said. “I’ve never seen so many people that I respect on that board be so condescending to another human being. It was demoralizing.”
The board members aren’t going to agree on every topic of conversation, he said, but debates like Thursday take away from the most important issues at hand.
Hutchins noted that graduation rates, showing Cobb County’s continued improvement had just come out and were largely ignored by the board. Superintendent Chris Ragsdale also decided to move a report from district staff, titled “Literacy Update II” to the following meeting agenda in respect of time.
Hutchins also added that Democrat board member David Morgan, whose seat on the board he is aiming for, handled the discussion with the most grace. Morgan suggested multiple times at the meeting that board members try to compromise, advising the proposal be delayed to allow for a policy to be crafted.
His recommendations failed.
Both Howard and Charisse Davis, who are freshmen Democrat board members, have in the past taken an opportunity to speak on the district’s need for a chief equity officer.
Davis accused the board’s Republicans on Thursday of trying to cut out the opinions of members who speak about topics that make them uncomfortable.
“I feel like when a couple of us get here and bring up words like ‘equity,’ we’re censoring,” she said.
Howard also said if the board decided to take comments out, he’d still find his opportunities to sneak them in during other agenda items.
While Chastain said board members would still be able to share their comments publicly in other ways — on social media or in emailed newsletters, for example — Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the action is detrimental to public knowledge.
Griffiths said any steps taken to remove any kind of open remarks at public meetings is a threat to transparency.
“What they have decided to do is limit discussion so that the public cannot understand what’s going on and so that the other board members are not able to speak up in a meaningful way to express their views,” he said. “That’s another impact on the public’s understanding of what’s happening in their communities. If the discussion is blocked off from being robust and thorough, then the public doesn’t understand the full extent of the issues. That’s a disappointing development.”
Each school board in Georgia determines what their process is for board member comment, according to Justin Pauly, a spokesperson for the Georgia School Boards Association.
Some nearby school boards have an allocated budget item for open remarks at their public meetings, while others do not. Out of the school boards for Marietta City Schools, Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County Schools and Cherokee County Schools, Cherokee allows its board members open-ended comments, and Fulton lists “announcements and adjournment” on the agenda.