The three Democrats on the Cobb Board of Education have a message for people worried about an upcoming “special review” of the county’s school district: Don’t panic.
Cognia, the accrediting agency of the Cobb County School District, said in April it would begin a special review of the district, having received letters — including one from the board’s three Democrats — detailing dysfunction on the school board, the seven-member governing body charged with hiring the district’s superintendent, approving its budget and providing general oversight.
The news was made public when Superintendent Chris Ragsdale released a statement April 22, in which Ragsdale said the review could jeopardize students’ college acceptance and scholarships, district funding and recruitment and county property values, all of which rely on a district or its schools being accredited. County leaders from across the political spectrum have expressed concern with the impending review, citing similar reviews Cognia conducted in DeKalb and Clayton school districts in 2011 and 2008, respectively.
Cognia has yet to set a timeline for the Cobb review.
Speaking before members of the Cobb Democratic Party Saturday morning, Cobb school board member Charisse Davis said Ragsdale’s statement “put a lot of fear into people,” calling it “irresponsible.”
“We’re not going to lose accreditation,” Davis said, pointing to interviews with Mark Elgart, Cognia’s president and CEO.
In a recent interview with the MDJ, Elgart said, “We’re here to help them improve. We’re not here to penalize them.”
Democratic board member Leroy “Tré” Hutchins also cited that interview Saturday morning.
“I want to first make sure it’s clear that the reason Cognia is coming is stated by Cognia,” Hutchins said. “And Mark Elgart, the CEO of Cognia, also did several press interviews recently. And I do believe that the MDJ has a podcast where he discussed why he’s coming. ... Just listen to what he’s saying, and read the letter from Cognia, and then it’ll help you to better understand where we are and why we are where we are.”
Ragsdale’s April 22 news release said Cognia’s review followed “a request that Cognia conduct an unscheduled review filed by three CCSD Board of Education members, Charisse Davis, Dr. Jaha Howard, and Leroy “Tré” Hutchins in January 2021,” before noting Cognia had also mentioned “additional complaints from groups and individuals alleging the same or very similar violations of Cognia standards.”
Saturday, the school board’s Democrats pushed back against the notion that Cognia would not have announced the special review if not for their letter.
“I almost feel like we were a little late to the party, as board members, with writing Cognia,” Hutchins said. “They had already had letters from the community and from staff. Cognia was coming irregardless of Charisse, Jaha and I approaching them, according to the way things are written in those Cognia letters.”
Nevertheless, one attendee of Saturday’s meeting asked whether the board’s Democrats could have handled the issue differently — whether they could have sat down with the board’s four Republicans one-on-one to hammer out their differences, or whether they could have at least given the district advance warning they would reach out to Cognia as a last resort.
Davis said she has indeed had those one-on-one discussions.
“There are members who have sat with fellow members for hours,” she said. “I’ve talked to a board member, sat with a board member in a conference room, only for them to say … they’ve never done that.
“You get to the point where you’re just like, ‘Do I matter so little that you don’t even remember having this conversation?’”
Days before Hutchins assumed office Jan. 1, he, Davis and Howard sent the board’s Republicans and Ragsdale a letter with three priorities for the new year, Davis said: early childhood literacy, staff morale and safety and, finally, intensive board training.
The board’s Republicans trace the divide to the elections of Davis and Howard in 2018, which changed the makeup on the board to three Democrats and four Republicans. Davis and Howard began discussing at board meetings controversial issues during the board comment section held at the end of each meeting. The board’s four Republicans eventually ended those discussions by removing the period granted to board members to speak on a topic of their choosing and by requiring consent from a majority of members to add a topic to a meeting’s agenda.
Republican board member David Chastain has said his Democratic colleagues, in raising those issues, were trying to politicize the school board and were taking advantage of the time they had been granted to speak freely — time that had, traditionally, been used to celebrate the district rather than criticize it.
On Saturday, Howard said such discussions were necessary.
“Focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative is not going to get us anywhere,” Howard said, adding that colleagues should “work on areas of concern, and not minimize the areas of concern and only maximize our accolades.”
It is that sharp divide Democrats hoped to address when asking their colleagues and the superintendent for “intensive training,” they said.
“While we do have training, we knew that the way we were operating as a board wasn’t good, and we needed, again, intensive board training that went beyond anything we were required to do,” Davis said.
Their letter was ignored, she continued, and the Democrats “decided that we needed help” and sent the letter to Cognia.
Hutchins said he was somewhat disappointed by Cognia’s response.
“Who better to give that professional development … than our accrediting agency?” he said Saturday. And yet, Cognia, in its response, “didn’t address our letter.”