MARIETTA — After heated debate, multiple motions and a split vote, Cobb school board members will no longer be able to make open-ended comments during their public monthly meetings.
Cobb school board member David Banks made the original recommendation to remove the board member comment section from monthly agendas, and after multiple failed amendments and more than an hour and a half of discussion, board Chairman David Chastain cut off the debate to force the vote.
The vote was split along party lines, with the Republicans — Chastain, Vice Chair Brad Wheeler and board members Randy Scamihorn and Banks — voting in favor. Democrats Charisse Davis, Jaha Howard and David Morgan voted against the recommendation.
Chastain broached the discussion to remove board comments during the the board’s afternoon work session, saying the open-ended comments that come at the end of each meeting had become too political and strayed from the board’s purpose for meeting monthly with Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and his staff.
The comments used to focus solely on the board members’ respective posts, he said. The chairman said removing the comments would refocus the board on school business.
“We have a strategic communications department that is putting stuff out,” Chastain said, adding that board members can put their own comments on social media.
Chastain’s suggestion left board members Charisse Davis and Jaha Howard laughing.
Howard said removing the board comments raised transparency concerns and ignored the constituents who wanted to hear difficult and sometimes political topics raised during that portion of the agenda.
“Because of the internet, we don’t need to talk about it here?” Howard said, later adding that public comment could be next on the chopping block. “This is cowardice.”
Howard also said multiple board members, including himself, had not had time to consider the idea that Chastain had thought about for at least a month.
“I assume you’ve wrestled with this,” Howard said. “I would just like at least one month, one board meeting, one session, to kind of wrestle with this whole concept so that we can make an informed vote.”
Like Howard, Davis also accused Chastain of rushing through the decision. Davis said the suggestion to remove board comments from the public meeting seemed a plot to silence certain board members.
“We have board members who talk about football games, police officers around the country, and I feel like when a couple of us get here and bring up words like ‘equity,’ we’re censoring,” she said. “It’s not OK.”
Board member David Morgan also suggested that the board should delay a decision on removing comments to give the board and district staff time to develop a policy governing board comments.
Morgan said constituents love to hear the goings-on of the schools in their post, and there should be a public time to celebrate that.
“I think, Mr. Chair, that all of us enjoy board member comments, as long as it stays within a certain place,” Morgan said. “If that is the case, I think that there is a pathway to saying we can get back to that without saying, ‘Hey, it is gone.’”
Morgan and Howard attempted multiple recommendations to delay the proposal, even suggesting to temporarily stop board comments while a policy was being developed.
In response to the suggestion to create a policy, Chastain said the chair is expected to run the meetings in an orderly manner, and he would not want to have to call specific board members out in front of the audience, should they begin to stray from comments about their area of the county.
Howard also asked multiple times for an increasingly frustrated Chastain to explain his reasons for wanting to remove the comments and challenged him to give examples.
As debate dragged on, the freshman board member suggested in an amended motion that Chastain allow board members who he thought were “good” to continue to be able to make comments at meetings.
“That’s a frivolous motion,” Chastain said, talking over Howard and abruptly ending debate. The recommendation to remove the board comments followed.
Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said she was shocked by the board’s action. In nearly a decade of serving as the association’s president, Jackson said, board member comments have never been a point of contention.
“I think it was very damaging to board cohesiveness,” Jackson said. “I think that it was very telling about some people’s comfort levels with other board members’ comments. And I think that’s a very sad state of our board.”
Echoing Howard’s comments, Jackson said shutting down board comments in a public setting is a concerning step for open dialogue.
“If board comments are shut down, what will they shut down next? Public comments are my worry,” she said. “Public comment, to me, is crucial.”