Dec 18, 2023 - News

Judge orders legislators to redraw Cobb school board map

Cobb County's growing Democratic and progressive communities are pushing back against its conservative school board, which was dealt a legal blow last week over its controversial district map.

Driving the news: U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross last week ordered the General Assembly to redraw the boundaries for the Cobb Board of Education.

  • Ross ruled the school board's map was "substantially likely to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander."

Why it matters: The seven-member Board of Education is the only Cobb governing body where the GOP retains a majority.

  • Once a Republican stronghold, nearly all countywide elected positions have flipped from GOP to Democratic control.
  • Cobb voters have backed Democratic presidential candidates since 2016.

Details: The judge determined the current map packs Black and Hispanic voters into three districts on the south side of Cobb while limiting their influence in the four, majority white districts on the northern side.

  • County spokesperson Ross Cavitt told Axios the Board of Elections would like to have the maps in the system by Jan. 24.

Catch up quick: The GOP-led school board commissioned the current map, which was adopted by state legislators and signed into law last year.

  • A group of residents represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights organizations filed a legal challenge against the map, arguing that it was unconstitutional.
  • Lawyers for the school district called the plaintiffs "leftist political activists" who were trying to influence the redistricting process. They accused the elections board of caving to "liberal activist groups."

What they're saying: Hylah Daly, a former district student and one of the residents who sued over the map, said in a statement that it was "important for my voice and the voices of our current and former students to be heard in this case."

The other side: A school district spokesperson told Axios that its legal team expected the ruling, and "we do not anticipate this case to be over in the near term."

The Cobb school district's partisan labeling of the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit is part of the systems' larger trend of wading into Republican Party and conservative politics in recent years.

State of play: Superintendent Chris Ragsdale has spoken at Cobb Republican Women's Club monthly meetings at least twice in the past two years, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.

  • Former Cobb County Democratic Party Chair Jacquelyn Bettadapur told Axios that the superintendent was never invited to speak at their events, but there "was the recognition that he would not come even if invited" because of the tense relationship he had with Charisse Davis and Dr. Jaha Howard, two former Democratic board members.
  • Of note: The superintendent position is nonpartisan, and Ragsdale has not publicly stated if he identifies as a Republican.

The latest: Cobb residents recently formed the Cobb Community Care Coalition to advocate for marginalized students. They've since released a batch of emails and messages they say prove the district actively courts voices to counter their critiques of the system.

  • The district denied this assertion and told Axios it welcomes feedback from all Cobb residents.

The intrigue: The Cobb Republican Party encourages its members to attend board meetings and speak in support of the superintendent and the GOP-led board.

  • According to an email message sent days before the Sept. 14 board meeting, GOP Chair Salleigh Grubbs asked members to show up early and "fill up speaking slots" and provide "some positive remarks" to thank Ragsdale.
  • "I like for our members to be engaged in what's going on and support our superintendent," she told Axios last week.

The big picture: Local school boards have become a "venue for a broader set of actors," most of whom are conservative-leaning, to push national political agendas, said Julie Marsh, a professor of education policy at the University of Southern California.

  • Marsh tells Axios that the hyperfocus on school boards is a way for Republicans to "build up support" for issues near and dear to their hearts.
  • "It's a broader effort to build a base of supporters that ultimately could translate up to higher level office," she said.
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