A Cobb grand jury has opened an investigation into purchasing decisions made by the Cobb County Board of Education, according to an attorney within the Cobb District Attorney’s Office.
In a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus, school district administration in late 2020 recommended the purchase of ultraviolet sanitizing lights and “aqueous ozone” hand-sanitizing stations. The $12 million purchase was approved by the school board that December.
In March 2021, the district canceled its contract with ProTek Life, the manufacturer of the ultraviolet lights, citing a malfunction at one of the schools in which they had been installed. Shortly thereafter, the district attorney’s office said it was opening an “initial inquiry” into the school district’s business practices.
When reached Thursday afternoon, board members Randy Scamihorn and Leroy “Tre” Hutchins and board Chairman David Chastain said they were unaware of any grand jury investigation.
“Grand jury proceedings are secret, and we are not privy to them. We respect the privacy and sanctity of the grand jury process and are mindful that tampering with that process from within or without can be considered a crime,” district spokeswoman Nan Kiel said in an emailed statement Thursday. “At all times and as communicated to the District Attorney’s office, Cobb County School District stands ready to provide any information they request and cooperate with any process.”
According to an attorney within the DA’s office, who requested anonymity to speak about an ongoing investigation, the Cobb grand jury impaneled in January has “started the initial stages of an investigation” into purchasing decisions made by the school board. Those decisions include the purchase of ProTek’s ultraviolet sanitizing lights and other purchases over $50,000, according to the source.
Grand juries can conduct optional, civil investigations of certain government organizations, including school boards, according to a grand jury handbook prepared by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. An investigation does not mean the school board will ultimately be found to have committed any wrongdoing.
A November report from Cognia, the school district’s accreditor, claimed the district had no “consistent and formal process” for making purchasing decisions. Cognia CEO Mark Elgart has since disavowed that report, saying it was the flawed product of volunteer work.
“Given the Team did not identify an instance in which the School District did not follow its own policies and procedures, it is unclear why the Team recommended an ‘improvement priority’” in adherence to its spending policies, Elgart recently wrote in a letter to the school district. That letter now serves as the official report summarizing the findings from a “special review” Cognia conducted last year after receiving complaints from board Democrats and dozens of members in the Cobb community.
Board members reached Thursday said they had seen news reports last year regarding the DA’s investigation. But they were unaware of any investigations that may have been opened since.
“I don’t know anything since that article a year ago,” Hutchins told the MDJ on Thursday.
“Absolutely not,” Scamihorn said when asked whether he had been told of a grand jury investigation. “I’m on the record of being open and welcoming of … any agency that is appropriate to look into what we do. Because we’re a government agency ourselves. So come on down.”
Saying he hadn’t heard of an investigation either, Chastain said, whether an investigation had been opened or not, Cobb County School District is “still a great school system, with higher than average test scores, higher than average graduation rates — and we’re accredited.”