Pity the poor school superintendents as they approach this coronavirus-impacted academic year.

If there ever was a no-win situation, this is it.

Just days ago, both school systems in Cobb County were proceeding with opt-in plans allowing parents and students to decide whether “back to school” would mean just that or if kids would once again be taking lessons at the dining room table.

But the recent climb in the COVID-19 count caused Superintendents Chris Ragsdale and Grant Rivera to backtrack to an online-only opening.

Cobb’s Ragsdale emphasizes that no one recognizes the value of face-to-face instruction more than him, his staff and the teachers in Cobb Schools. But armed with advice and guidance from “the experts,” the prudent choice was to stay at home.

Rivera made a similar announcement just 24 hours before his Marietta City Schools board would vote on the matter. Ragsdale feels while the board votes on the school calendar, this decision was operational and falls within the decision-making realm of the superintendent’s office — no board vote needed.

Surely as each made their announcements, they must have been bracing for strong reaction.

For Cobb, the announcement stole the wind from the sails of a planned protest Thursday. Those objecting to the original plan were ready to storm the school administration building. With the virtual-learning announcement made, the protest mustered just a couple dozen participants. Still, Ragsdale reports that feedback thus far has been about “fifty-fifty.”

But for Marietta, the decision brought a maelstrom of those who sorely want kids back in the classroom. Shortly after Rivera’s announcement, a bevy of parents signed an open letter to the board stating such.

Timing is everything and in this case the parents had little time — less than 24 hours — to organize the letter, get it signed and in front of the board before the scheduled 8:30 a.m. vote Friday. Not quite apples to apples, but one parent commented that the parents had less than a day to have their voices heard.

“At least the Braves stadium had five meetings and three weeks before the vote," he said. 

The MDJ received the signed letter early Friday morning and was able to post online just about 50 minutes before the school board convened.

In the end, the vote was 6 to 1 for Rivera’s proposal. The parents earned the ear of only one board member — Jason Waters — who today is likely the most popular man in all of Marietta.

Here is the letter the parents submitted:

July 16, 2020

Dear Marietta City School Board,

We represent the parents and grandparents of Marietta City school students who were excited to be back to school in a little over 2 weeks. We have been proud and impressed at Marietta City Schools' hard work and planning that went into opening schools. There was a virtual plan in place for those who were not comfortable attending in person. There have been town halls and open communication regarding those plans and questions answered. There was a survey where the overwhelming amount of MCS parents indicated they were comfortable with going back to school. Thank you.

Today we received word that in less than 24 hours there would be a vote to start the school year virtually based on updates from public health officials.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says to open schools. The data collected from other countries who have opened schools — including Europe and Asia — says to open school. The science is overwhelming that children rarely transmit COVID-19.

Furthermore, we are a Title 1 school district and are putting our most economically challenged students in an even greater risk. If we start virtually, we will be denying children nearly 8 months of an appropriate education. What about the child who is not yet reading and is now a year behind? What about the kids whose parents have to work and are left home alone everyday? What about our non-English speaking students? Our special needs students? Our working parents? The ripple effects are strong.

We are a small school district and our numbers pale in comparison to neighboring school districts. Those who are not comfortable returning to school have been offered an online alternative. We know you care deeply about the students in this town and we commend the hard work you provide every day on their behalf. We wanted you to hear directly from us - please vote NO and give our students the option to go back to school. Because we are Special. Different. Better.

The letter came with more than 300 signatures representing 157 families in the Marietta City Schools system.

JUDICIAL RUNOFF: In last Saturday’s Around Town, Cobb GOP Chairman Jason Shepherd shared his objections over what he believes was favoritism in the way Georgia's Judicial Qualifications Commission is treating the two candidates locked in a runoff for a chance to fill the seat held by retiring Cobb Superior Court Judge Steve Schuster. Those candidates are Marietta attorney Greg Shenton and Jason Marbutt, a senior assistant Cobb County district attorney.

Shepherd’s objection distills down to this: Shenton paid $100 as a sponsor at a Cobb GOP breakfast, which gave him special speaking time to the group. The JQC said he had to refund that money as it wasn’t allowed under the rules. Meanwhile, Shepherd said Marbutt paid $35 to participate in a candidate forum hosted by the Cobb Democratic Women, $10 over the $25 ticket fee for non candidates. 

If the JQC made Shenton return the money, Shepherd believes it should have treated Marbutt the same. The fact that it didn’t led him to accuse the JQC staff of favoritism in that Marbutt and JQC staff used to work in the Cobb DA’s office together and are friends. 

Charles Boring, JQC director, tells AT he takes issue with Shepherd’s account, noting he read “with bemusement the uninformed, incomplete, and incorrect statements” Shepherd made in the column.

Boring acknowledged Shepherd had expressed concern with the handling of a judicial election matter managed privately by the JQC.

“Privately, that is, until Shepherd chose to make those confidential dealings public, in a manner omitting material facts and legal principles relevant to how judicial candidates must conduct themselves,” Boring wrote.

Boring said longstanding rules governing judicial campaign conduct hold that a judicial candidate may pay to attend political events and speak about their own candidacy. He said these rules prohibit, however, a judicial candidate from sponsoring a political party event, having that sponsorship advertised or paying for speaking time not afforded other judicial candidates. Boring said in the situation Shepherd raised, “Candidate A” was simply an attendee, while “Candidate B” admittedly sponsored a political event with enhanced speaking time and advertising, courtesy of Shephard.

“The distinction is clear,” he said. “Shepherd’s statements to the MDJ were legally and factually wrong, and Mr. Shepherd knows this. While his comments referenced email communications with our Deputy Director, he omitted the subsequent email exchanges between himself, Candidate B, and me. This included Shepherd’s claim that Candidate A paid $10 above the registration fee to speak at an event. Our agency investigated Mr. Shepherd’s claim and found it to be incorrect, as Candidate A only paid the base $25 to attend and speak. I informed them of this fact, yet Mr. Shepherd failed to disclose that fact to the MDJ and has yet to correct that verifiable falsity.

(Shepherd did send the MDJ several screenshots of the Cobb Democratic Women’s event, listing $25 to attend the event and $35 for candidates, but back to Boring.)

“Additionally, his suggestion of some nefarious plan to help Candidate A due to a former working relationship is as offensive as it is false, especially as I consider Candidate B a friend,” Boring wrote. “I explained this to Shepherd in our email exchange, yet again he omitted these facts from his flawed AT narrative. Shepherd’s reckless and baseless claims of bias because of ‘political considerations’ are particularly offensive due to the independent nature of the JQC. That independence is something that the Commission and I hold dearly. No matter what our political backgrounds, affiliations, or personal opinions are, the JQC Commission and Staff constantly strive to do what is right based upon the law and facts before it, and that alone. Shepherd’s default to such amateurish behavior is disappointing, especially given the serious and real concerns facing this community and country today.”

In related news, Marbutt also tells the MDJ the allegation Shepherd weighed against him never happened.

“I spent $27.47, which was a $25 ticket plus tax. I didn’t pay for any special speaking. To my knowledge, I paid the same price as every other participant,” Marbutt said.

The event, which was June 27, gave equal time for any political candidates to speak, Marbutt said. He said he made it clear to everyone that he was a nonpartisan candidate, and was never advertised otherwise. Shenton, on the other hand, had sponsored the GOP breakfast.

“From my perspective, we as candidates go to lots of different events for both parties. In fact, two days before this, I had gone to the (Cobb Republican Women’s Club,) an event where I had also paid for a ticket. All four candidates were at that one, and we all were able to speak at that one as well,” he said. “So I don’t see the difference between them.”

Added Marbutt: “I wish Mr. Shepherd would have reached out to me before he started making allegations, particularly allegations that will run in the paper. It sounds like his disagreement is with other parties and shouldn’t be with me.”

Support Local Journalism

Now, more than ever, residents need trustworthy reporting—but good journalism isn’t free. Please support us by purchasing a digital subscription. Your subscription will allow you unlimited access to important local news stories. Our mission is to keep our community informed and we appreciate your support.