Parents Skeptical of School Board's Openness
The Cobb County Board of Education approves a memorandum promising to comply with state laws on records and meetings without admitting past violations.
A Georgia senior assistant attorney general focused on the Cobb County Board of Education’s future rather than past “serious accusations” during a training session Thursday on open records and public meetings.
Stefan Ritter said the allegations of open meetings violations weren’t bad enough to warrant more than the training and a memorandum of understanding to ensure compliance with state laws.
“We did not think this was as egregious as some of the violations we’ve seen” elsewhere, Ritter told Patch. “Nonetheless, we look at this in a forward way. Our goal is not so much to punish people, but to seek compliance to the law.”
The memorandum of understanding says that if no evidence of new open records or open meetings violations comes up in the next 12 months, Attorney General Sam Olens’ office won’t prosecute the six allegations that led to Thursday’s training. A copy of the memorandum is attached to this article.
The board voted 6-1 to approve and sign the memorandum, with David Banks of East and Northeast Cobb’s Post 5 dissenting, but skepticism remained about the members’ behavior.
“There’s no standard of a violation in an email communication,” parent Tricia Knor said after the training session, which was general in nature. “I’m a little discouraged but not deterred. How can you change behavior if you’re not acknowledging that the behavior you did was wrong?”
Knor filed a June 27 complaint to Olens that claimed Chairwoman Alison Bartlett, Vice Chairman Scott Sweeney, and board members Kathleen Angelucci and Tim Stultz violated the Open Meetings Act when they used private email accounts to send messages to one another about board business, particularly the school calendar.
“There’s nothing today to lead you to believe their conduct would change,” said Thom Gray, who had joined fellow parent Mike Sansone in filing an open records complaint to the attorney general.
“What has changed?” Banks said after the meeting. “Is this going to change the attitude? They had a Brock & Clay (law firm) orientation before they were sworn in. They had GSBA (Georgia School Boards Association) training before they were sworn in. But they had a purpose: to exclude three board members.”
Bartlett, Sweeney, Angelucci and Stultz formed the majority when the Board of Education voted 4-3 Feb. 17 to dump the school system’s balanced calendar in favor of a more traditional schedule and remained united against attempts to reverse that decision.
But board member David Morgan of South Cobb’s Post 3, who was with Banks and West Cobb’s Lynnda Crowder-Eagle on the losing side of the calendar debate, said Ritter’s 68-minute training session provided optimism.
“I’m happy Mr. Ritter came out, and I’m hopeful it reinforces our duties,” he said.
Gray said the session was a “good first step” toward the board’s restoring public trust. “We really just want an open board, a board that’s conducting public business out in the open.”
The calendar decision came in the first year of a planned three-year test of the balanced calendar despite overwhelming support for continuing the test in an online Cobb County School District survey. The change divided the community, and parents and teachers vented their frustrations for months during board meetings.
Knor, Gray and Sansone followed with their complaints to the state Attorney General’s Office. Knor focused on the Open Meetings Act; Gray and Sansone co-filed a complaint against Bartlett, Stultz and Angelucci for not turning over documents requested under the Open Records Act.
Although the board needed training, Dara Fairgrieves said the school district’s communications office has done a good job responding to records requests.
“The district acts in good faith,” Fairgrieves said, drawing agreement from Gray, Knor and Sansone. “We’re pro-district.”