In the wake of news that the Cobb School District will be the subject of a special accreditation review, a social media campaign has begun to recall the three board members who asked for the investigation.
In a letter published to their board member Facebook pages on Sunday, the three Democratic board members — Charisse Davis, Dr. Jaha Howard and Leroy Tre’ Hutchins — have also called into question some of Superintendent Chris Ragdale’s claims and offered their turn of events for what led to the review that has upset community leaders and was described by Ragsdale as “unusual.”
Ragsdale told the MDJ last week he was offended by the call for a special review, especially because the accrediting organization had just determined the district would have its accreditation renewed through 2024, the longest extension possible.
Efforts to recall board members ignited on Facebook
In the days following Thursday’s news that the Cobb School District would be the subject of a special review that Ragsdale and others say could endanger the district’s accreditation, a page named “Recall Jaha Howard, Charisse Davis and Tre Hutchins from the Cobb School Bd” launched on Facebook. By Monday morning, the group had garnered nearly 300 members.
The public group’s sole administrator did not respond to requests for comment, but the page’s “about” information accuses Davis, Howard and Hutchins of putting “our schools in a terrible place,” by requesting an independent review by the accrediting firm, Cognia.
“To suggest our schools should lose their accreditation demands we recall these board members,” the page says. The board members themselves did not suggest the district should lose its accreditation, but critics of the call for a review say they fear accreditation loss as the ultimate result.
Mike Roberts, a member of the group with a stepdaughter in a Cobb elementary school, said he signed on because he sees the Democrats’ calls for the special review as solely political.
“I just don’t like what I’m seeing,” Roberts said. “There’s no need for a review. ... Those three board members are not acting in the best interest of our students.”
The west Cobb resident said even if the board members have valid concerns about their district, they should not be risking accreditation by calling for an unwarranted special review. That, he said, unnecessarily risks students’ futures.
Roberts added that he does not believe the district’s accreditation is at risk, given Cobb Schools’ academic performance. But Roberts said he signed on to the recall movement because he believes Davis, Howard and Hutchins are putting their own agendas before the students’ needs.
“Their (modus operandi) always has been, ‘If we can’t get our way, then we’re just going to take everything around us and disrupt it as much as possible,’” said Roberts, who said he resides in Cobb school board member Brad Wheeler’s district.
Davis did not respond to a request for comment, Howard declined to comment and Hutchins, after initially responding, could not be reached for comment.
How feasible is a recall?
Recalling an elected official is no small undertaking, according to what would be required under law. Cobb Elections Director Janine Eveler said the process is undertaken in three steps and must be followed for each individual seat.
Among other requirements, an application for recall must be submitted with at least 100 valid signatures to the Cobb elections office; a petition with signatures of 30% of active registered voters for each of the board members’ districts must then be filed. Finally, if those two steps are found to be sufficient and the recall petitions survive a Superior Court review, a recall election can be called.
Eveler said Monday she had received no requests for recall applications.
Davis and Howard’s seats, as well as board member David Chastain’s, are up for election in November 2022. Hutchins’ seat is up for election in November 2024.
Board members defend request for review
A letter released in tandem Sunday by Davis, Howard and Hutchins and written in response to a district news release acknowledges that their concerns and others’ led to their request for an investigation by Cognia, the school district’s accrediting body.
But the three also write that Cognia’s Feb. 16 letter responding to their concerns and other complaints from staff and community do not mention board member politics and infighting, as Ragsdale has said.
“We do not know what the basis is for the district’s characterization of Cognia’s concerns,” the Democrats’ April 25 statement says. “The accreditation standards under review are about the board satisfying its responsibilities, and the district adequately addressing student achievement.”
However, in their January letter to Cognia, the three do point to “numerous points of conflict over the last two years” and suggest an independent third party should “help us navigate our differences for the sake of our students and staff.”
And Cognia’s list of complaints also refer to relationships among board members, as well as other concerns.
The three members point out in their Sunday statement that Cognia, not they, decided there was adequate concern and need for a special review, and they lay out another turn of events that led to their January letter to the accrediting body, which first asked for the review.
In December 2020, the three Democrats sent a letter to the entire school board and the superintendent asking to place three items on an upcoming meeting agenda. Hutchins had not yet been sworn in at the time of the December letter’s sending, having just been elected in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election. Hutchins replaced David Morgan, a Democrat, who did not run for reelection.
The December letter came the month after the school board voted along party lines to change a board policy making it possible to place items on meeting agendas only if four board members agreed, rather than the three required before. The letter also followed a 4-2 vote on the controversial purchase of up to “$12 million for UV lights and hand rinsing stations,” the Democrats write. The three say they also planned to discuss the growing concern of educator and parent safety as COVID-19 infections in the district continued to rise.
“The priorities included in our December 2020 letter were early literacy, educator and employee safety and morale during the pandemic, and a request for governance body training for the entire board,” the letter released Sunday states. “Unfortunately, this letter was not acknowledged by our fellow board members nor the superintendent. This lack of acknowledgement led us to ask for assistance from Cognia.”
Davis, Howard and Hutchins also note that they shared the letter they sent to Cognia in late January with Ragsdale and the rest of the board.
“Again, our letter to appeal for assistance was not acknowledged by the board nor the superintendent,” they said.
After a letter from Cognia to the district in February asking for the district’s response to board member and community concerns, as well as the district response in March, Cognia made the determination earlier this month to send a special review team.
The accrediting body said it had received complaints claiming board members:
♦ Exhibit a lack of understanding regarding their roles and responsibilities as members of the board;
♦ Do not demonstrate collegiality with respect to their differences or work cohesively to promote student achievement and the success of the district;
♦ Do not adhere to a code of ethics regarding board conduct during board of education meetings;
♦ Do not adhere to ethical practices for fiscal oversight;
♦ Make decisions that seem unethical, discriminatory or inhumane;
♦ Are not communicating transparently to staff and community stakeholders on issues of current importance and related decisions. For example, the board has not been responsive to requests for discussion on items related to teacher and staff support and safety improvements during this pandemic;
♦ Have not been responsive to requests for discussion related to the study and expansion of targeted literacy interventions based on data about student performance.
Davis, Howard and Hutchins say Cognia’s response makes it clear that its accreditation standards under review are “about the board satisfying its responsibilities, and the district adequately addressing student achievement.”
“As we undergo Cognia’s review process, we are hopeful that the district and Board of Education will partner with our accrediting body to make any recommended improvements and come out stronger,” their Sunday letter says. “We also hope to work with our school board leadership to speak with one unified voice going forward in our effort to do what’s best for our children and our community.”