SMYRNA — Two of three Democratic members of the Cobb school board shared their thoughts Thursday night on the board’s role in addressing public concern surrounding the Smyrna Sterigenics plant that emits a carcinogen, gang activity in the district and representation of the south Cobb community, among other topics.
Board members Jaha Howard, Charisse Davis and David Morgan were all scheduled to appear at the town hall hosted by the Cobb Democratic Women, but only Howard and Davis were present.
Howard and Davis took neutral stances when asked what the board should do about the issue of air pollution from the Sterigenics medical equipment sterilization plant in the Smyrna community.
Georgia Health News and WebMD published a report in July that the plant at 2973 Industrial Court in Smyrna, just north of the Chattahoochee River and Fulton County line, was emitting elevated levels of a cancer-causing chemical called ethylene oxide. Since then, lawmakers, city governments and Atlanta school board members, among others, have called for air quality testing in the surrounding area, and even a possible suspension of the plant’s operations.
But the two Cobb school board members were more reserved.
Howard said he and other board members would be paying close attention to the outcome of an Aug. 19 public meeting with representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and members of the Cobb County commission.
An open house at the Cobb County Civic Center is scheduled that evening from 5 to 6:45 p.m., with a public meeting to follow at 7 p.m.
“Things are happening day by day, and I’m a big believer that we should talk about facts and not what ... so-and-so said,” Howard said, adding that he has lived in the “hot zone” surrounding the Sterigenics plant for a decade. “Just know that we take it extremely seriously. And as a district, just know that we’re doing everything we can to be helpful.”
When pressed, Howard said the entire school board has not established a formal position. But, he said, “I think it would be great for us to be more active in taking formal positions like that.”
Davis did not directly address the Sterigenics plant, saying instead that the public should be paying attention to threats to the environment generally. She pointed to concern surrounding water contamination from coal ash ponds at power plants in the state.
In June, the MDJ reported that millions of tons of coal ash waste generated by Plant McDonough-Atkinson is stored near the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Cobb. Environmental groups have raised concerns over ash ponds leaking contaminants into nearby water sources across the state.
In discussion about minority representation in schools, Howard told the group that his post, which covers a portion of southeast Cobb County, is both a majority minority and growing fast. He said south Cobb residents have long voiced the opinion that other areas of the county, like east Cobb, are given more attention and funding.
But, he said, there is a silver lining in the form of what he called “major projects” coming to the south Cobb community.
He said, thanks to a voter-approved special 1% sales tax for education, projects like the new Clay Harmony Leland Elementary School in Mableton scheduled to be completed in May 2020 and the expansion of Campbell High School in Smyrna, which is still in the design phase, have begun to give the south Cobb community proof that they’re not being forgotten.
“It’s nice to have some things that we can see. For a long time in south Cobb, it felt like all the other parts of the county were getting the lion’s share of projects. It’s nice that our population growth is speaking volumes, and the money is following,” Howard said.
He also repeated that a new middle school is on its way in Smyrna, a community he said is “bursting at the seams,” and said Nickajack Elementary School, though not on the current schedule for improvement, could be the next in line.
Davis, who represents a large portion of east Cobb, said equally important for majority minority schools, like the ones in south Cobb, is making sure minority populations are reflected in the schools’ staff. She said the best way to do that is to have a culture of inclusion in the district, so any teacher, no matter their ethnic background, can feel welcome and safe teaching at any school.
“That work has to be done with everybody in the school system, all of the leadership on down to the principals, about knowing that it’s an additional challenge for teachers of color to walk into a school building and maybe they’re going to be welcomed or not,” she said.
On the issue of gang activity in Cobb schools, neither board member seemed concerned.
More concerning, Davis said, is making sure students are taken care of at a social and emotional level. A large part of the discussion surrounding rising suicide rates has to do with the rise among school-aged children, she said.
“We can’t get to the work of learning and the job of learning if we have all these other things going on,” she said. “So that’s where you’re hearing more calls for school counselors (and) programs that help kids be able to talk about things.”
Both board members reiterated after the close of the town hall that they had not heard reports of gang activity as a concern among their constituents.
“I spend a lot of time talking to parents and visiting schools. Very rarely has the conversation come up about gangs. There’s a lot more conversation about safety in regards to cyber bullying and things of that nature,” Howard said.
Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said the two board members did not get as specific in answers to questions on topics like health concerns and gang activity as she and others more active in the district would have hoped.
“They were not as in-depth as we’re used to, because we’re very involved actively in the school. So for our level of knowledge, they may not have been as in-depth as we would have liked,” she said.