Three of the four Cobb Board of Education members at the center of an inquiry by the state attorney general declined to comment Thursday during a contentious school board meeting that also included allegations of a "black list" over the equally heated school calendar issue.
A June 27 complaint by Cobb schools parent Tricia Knor to attorney general Sam Olens alleges that the four board members used personal email accounts to possibly conduct official business. When pressed by board members Lynnda Crowder-Eagle and David Banks during a 20-minute discussion, only Vice Chairman Scott Sweeney of East Cobb’s Post 6 was willing to talk.
Sweeney turned over the controversial communications from his private account following an open records request seeking more than 1,000 electronic transmissions on various school board topics between January and April. They included emails sent to and from Sweeney, Chairwoman Alison Bartlett of Marietta's Post 7, Tim Stultz of Smyrna’s Post 2 and Kathleen Angelucci of North Cobb's Post 4’s personal accounts.
‘Black List’ Discussed
Within these emails is a “black list” of people who posted or “liked” comments on a Facebook page titled “Petition Against the August 15, 2011 Calendar.” The list of roughly 250 people was compiled in early April by Wanda Becker, whose name was requested not to be released during the meeting by Cobb school system attorney Clem Doyle.
It wasn't clear as of Friday afternoon what Becker's relationship is with the school board.
Patch was unable to reach Becker at her home for this story on Friday.
The "black list" included Cobb County School District employees who commented on the Facebook page and then detailed what these employees’ titles, salaries, children and spouses’ names were, along with notes about them in a 74-page document.
“I widely admit there’s a lot of information that we receive from a lot of different people and also responded to in kind,” Sweeney said. “I want to specifically talk to people today who were talking about a list, and this page is multiple pages long. I did not request this list. If you look at the particular information here ... you’ll notice that I was blind copied on this and I have no idea who even received this list; further there’s no action taken on this.
“I don’t support any retribution toward any teacher or any employee in the Cobb County School District and I’ve expressed that vehemently to (Superintendent) Dr. (Michael) Hinojosa, (Interim Deputy Superintendent) Ms. Alice Stouder, among others,” he continued. “It is inexcusable for any member of the board of education to seek any retribution against any employee of the Cobb County School District.”
Emails Could Constitute ‘Virtual Meeting’
Sweeney’s comments followed Crowder-Eagle of West Cobb’s Post 1 and David Banks of Northeast and East Cobb’s Post 5 pointedly asking Sweeney, Bartlett, Stultz and Angelucci for answers to explain the private email correspondence. Crowder-Eagle and Banks had asked Bartlett to place the “Open Meetings Issue” on the meeting’s agenda in the Board Business section.
Crowder-Eagle said she found 53 emails in the more than 1,000 from January to April that excluded her, Banks and David Morgan of South Cobb’s Post 3.
“I hope we all agree that going forward that it’s critical that we do not use personal email accounts to conduct school business as this could constitute a virtual meeting,” Crowder-Eagle said. “At the very least, it alienates the three of us, and really I believe it could seriously impact the entire board and put our district in jeopardy.”
Crowder-Eagle said that “this type of secrecy and lack of transparency” violates directives from the accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), negatively impacts the district’s students and indicates an “unwillingness to work as a board of seven.”
She went on to question how one person could email board members on personal email accounts 115 times rather than using district-issued board email addresses.
“I don’t buy that you can’t control who emails you because you can control how you respond to these emails,” Crowder-Eagle said. “You corresponded very regularly over these four months with these same few people. It’s apparent when I read these emails that you align yourself with these individuals. This small group who is very unsupportive of the Cobb County School District, you asked for their input, you thanked them and applaud them consistently.”
Crowder-Eagle then said that from reading the emails she believed that individuals were directing board members on setting board meeting agendas, district personnel decisions and possibly delegating their school board responsibilities to outside individuals.
She said many of the emails were copied or blind copied to Marietta Daily Journal Publisher Otis Brumby Jr. and some of the newspaper’s columnists. She referenced an April 1 email from Becker that said the local media is “behind the 4 of you.”
“Why specifically did you feel it necessary to use your personal email accounts for discussing important board issues that were important to all of us?" Crowder-Eagle asked. "Do you believe that your actions create an imbalance between this special group of people and the remainder of citizens who don’t have access to you or influence over you?”
Bartlett said she and other three board members talked with Doyle and they gave their responses to Doyle for him to send to Olens.
“How about your response to us?” Crowder-Eagle interrupted, which Angelucci followed by saying, “Point of order.”
“At this time we’ve responded to the attorney general and we’re awaiting their response back,” Bartlett said.
“All righty,” Crowder-Eagle said.
“At this time, I feel it’s inappropriate to worry with that,” Bartlett concluded.
Board Possibly ‘Hijacked’ by Outsiders
Banks believes that the board was at sometime “hijacked” by outside influences and was “disturbed” by what was going on in the emails between the four board members through their personal email accounts.
"There’s a lot of conspiracy, a lot of secret meetings, a lot of conference calls that possibly could be violations of open meetings law," Banks said. He was also “very concerned” that during the recent superintendent search it was “evident” that there “could have been collusion” among the four board members.
“There’s a very dark cloud over this school system and over this school board; there’s no sunshine coming in,” said Banks, who asked Doyle to contact Cobb District Attorney Pat Head to convene a grand jury.
Doyle said he could make such a request only if the entire board “wishes me to do that." Banks then asserted that he believed some of the events rose to the level of "criminality," which Doyle dismissed.
“I do not see any evidence of crimes committed,” Doyle said. “I welcome anybody who has any information either from the public or from the board or staff members to let us know of things like that and we certainly act on those.”
After the meeting, Banks told Patch he would not be calling Head.
“I’m going to wait and see if a private citizen or group makes a request to have a special grand jury convened,” Banks said. “Otherwise, how are you going to shut all this stuff down if you don’t have an investigation because there’s just too much of it?"
“That’s why you need a special grand jury to investigate,” he added. “If they don’t find anything, then that’s fine. Let’s bring this thing to a head and get it over with. As it’s going now, there’s always some new revelation coming out each month it seems. This thing is taking on another life. If I was them, I would want to investigate it and get it out of the way.”
After the meeting, Crowder-Eagle, who doesn't favor grand jury attention, said she was “very disappointed” that none of the four board members involved in the personal email situation would answer her specific questions.
“I hope that they’ll reconsider and answer the questions (in the future) and make a commitment to work as a board of seven,” she said.
Cobb schools parent Mike Sansone, who helped to spark the private email controversy with his open records requests, said the lack of willingness of the four board members involved in the situation illustrated the “very large gap in unity” within the board.
“I think Mr. Sweeney will come around and effectively work as a team, but the others I don’t know about," Sansone said.
‘Black List’ Compared To McCarthyism
Sansone and Austell parent Gerald Williams addressed the board during the public comment period about their concerns with the “black list.”
“To me this is McCarthyism,” Williams said of the black list during the meeting’s 10-minute break. “You can imagine how it felt to find out that my name was on a list of people who spoke out against the change to a traditional calendar. I was upset to say the least and I was disgusted.”
Parent Thom Gray, who co-filed with Sansone three complaints with the state attorney general’s office against Bartlett, Angelucci and Stultz for failing to turn over documents requested under Georgia’s Open Records Act, said the information revealed so far through Sweeney’s personal email account and at the board meeting caused him to wonder who was actually running the Cobb County Board of Education.
“The question that all this evidence begs is who is running our school board?” Gray said. “What seems evident is that it’s not just our duly elected officials.”
After the meeting, Bartlett said she had email accounts through her former job as a teacher in Douglas County, the Cobb County School Board and her longtime personal account.
“There were no meetings,” she said between the four board members in question. “There was nothing in secret.”
Bartlett said that people frequently send things to her personal email account or to both her personal and board accounts when they believe their email is “very important.”
“Private citizens have the right to correspond with their elected officials and state their opinions, and private citizens have a right to their privacy,” she said. “People have passion and those with passion will correspond. I have one person who has a passion about school trailers and getting rid of them. There’s a lot of passionate people about the school board and obviously it sells newspapers.”