The Sope Creek Elementary School PTA sponsored the event, which attracted a crowd of about 80.
The evening’s moderator, East Cobber magazine publisher Cynthia Rozzo, asked the candidates about their ties to education vendors.
Sweeney has come under criticism since the MDJ reported earlier this month he is a consultant for Promethean Ltd., the maker of digital whiteboards used in some Cobb classrooms.
Sweeney answered Rozzo’s question by saying he was transparent about working for the education vendor.
“First of all, in the paper you may have heard that I am actually doing some consulting,” Sweeney said. “My consulting role is fully disclosed to members of the Board of Education. I shared with them, No. 1, I sent a letter to the board chair, the vice chair, the superintendent, our attorney, as well as the company I work for, said I will not vote on any matters related to this company as far as the Cobb County School District is concerned, nor will I do any work with the company. Secondly, I think it’s important to know that I do not do sales for this organization. I am not paid on a commission or an incentive of any kind. I work on strategic planning, and I work on the development of consulting services for that organization. And I’m not an employee. I actually am a consultant for the organization.”
While Sweeney said he informed the school board about his job with the education vendor, he did not disclose it on his campaign finance report or on an MDJ candidate questionnaire.
It wasn’t until Sweeney was spotted earlier this month in New Orleans at the National School Boards Association’s annual conference, a trip Cobb school board members were initially unaware of, that the MDJ asked Sweeney about his relationship with Promethean.
Sweeney refuses to disclose his contract with Promethean, claiming it is confidential.
His consulting work with a firm that does business with the school district has raised eyebrows. Board Chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci called it a conflict of interest, while William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, suggested the reason Promethean hired Sweeney was because of his school board position.
Former board member calls for Sweeney’s resignation
Retired educator Teresa Plenge, a Republican who served on the Cobb school board from 1997 to 2008, has called for Sweeney’s resignation.
“The fact that he became a so-called consultant after he was already a board member is, in terms of ethics, something that you just don’t do,” Plenge said. “He’s hiding it from the public. I think that action alone shows that he knows he’s guilty. And his stance now, to me, is just appalling — absolutely appalling — that he thinks any of this is acceptable behavior for an elected official is just appalling.”
Nicholas, a Republican who is challenging Sweeney in the May 20 primary, answered Rozzo’s question by saying conflicts of interest by board members must be avoided.
“And I do believe that we have to be very open about our dealings, in particular this example, where we have a company that is very interested in business with the Cobb County schools,” Nicholas said. “So regardless what letters have been sent, I think we need to be open with what my opponent does for them, and in return, I would be open to that as well in revealing my documents, in particular my tax returns, because I don’t have a contract in that regard.”
Nicholas said the problem doesn’t end with Sweeney consulting for one of the district’s vendors. It extends to the Cobb Schools Foundation.
Sweeney has said his initial contact with Promethean was through Jim Marshall, Promethean’s president and CEO.
Marshall is a board member of the Cobb Schools Foundation, a fundraising group that donates money to Cobb schools through fundraisers and has an employee on the district’s payroll. Sheri Brante is that employee, the executive director of the foundation. Her husband, Morten Brante, is senior vice president of services for Promethean.
Speaking of Promethean, Nicholas said, “That same company has representatives on the Cobb Foundation. I think we need to follow up with what Gwinnett does, for instance. They prohibit vendors from sitting on their foundation. And we also need to be very careful about the conflicts of interest that gives a business an unfair advantage to our school system.”
Thoughts on the new superintendent
Rozzo asked Nicholas if he would vote to hire deputy superintendent Chris Ragsdale, who is expected to be named interim superintendent Thursday, as the Cobb School District’s permanent superintendent.
Nicholas said he applauded Ragsdale for being selected as the finalist.
“I think Chris is a fine individual,” Nicholas said. “I think he has extensive experience in Cobb County schools, and I think he’s vested here, unlike our last superintendent, who my opponent has supported, who I don’t think was vested here, and I think we didn’t get his full attention.”
Born in Marietta’s Kennestone Hospital and reared in Paulding County, where Ragsdale continues to live with his family, Nicholas believes the district will have Ragsdale’s full attention.
“Chris is a technologist,” Nicholas said. “I think he can understand what we need to do regarding cost as far as implementing technology. At the same time, Chris knows how to surround himself with the proper people, so I think Chris has proven himself in his last position. I think we need to give him that opportunity in this position, and if he does a good job, I support him, and I support him as interim superintendent currently.”
Sweeney was next to answer the question, saying Ragsdale knows he has Sweeney’s support.
“Before we even started talking with people, I actually got together with Chris and I expressed some things to him very clearly,” Sweeney said. “I said, ‘Listen, one of the things I think you’re going to have a challenge with is No. 1, you don’t have your master’s degree yet. That’s going to be a challenge because he’s going to have to obtain his master’s degree simultaneously while he is going to be the interim school superintendent.”
Ragsdale is enrolled in Shorter University’s executive MBA program.
“Having a master’s degree is a requirement,” Sweeney said. “We actually had to go to the state to obtain a waiver to allow Mr. Ragsdale to be the interim school superintendent, and, by the way, we haven’t voted on that yet, but when we do vote, he’s going to have my support.”
Sweeney’s public support of Ragsdale directly contradicts what played out behind the scenes, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified.
That source says Sweeney bitterly fought the board’s selection of Ragsdale as interim superintendent.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is a former Cobb school board member who’s hired several superintendents during his time on the board.
Tippins, who believes Ragsdale is the right person for the job, said it’s not unique to seek such a waiver and doesn’t anticipate any problems in granting one for Ragsdale. Tippins questioned the relevance of the state requirement given that the rule is the master’s degree could be in any specific field, whether it could meaningfully be used in the job or not.
“Integrity, leadership ability, experience and strong people skills are more important to me than the fact that they attended school for another 18 months and got an advanced degree,” Tippins said.
Angelucci calls Sweeney’s executive session alleged leaks “unfortunate”
Angelucci shared her thoughts about Sweeney’s Ragsdale comments Tuesday.
“It is unfortunate that a fellow board member would disclose executive session deliberations about any interim superintendent candidate and the Interim Superintendent Search Process,” Angelucci said in an email shared with Vice Chairman Randy Scamihorn.
“It would seem difficult to expect anyone in the future to feel comfortable interviewing with the BOE if candidate discussions or deliberations are disclosed.”
Angelucci said the question of whether a board member would support the interim superintendent for a permanent position should be deferred since the next board will be making that decision.
“It is our hope that Mr. Sweeney may have misspoken and did not actually meet with a candidate in advance of the process to discuss their candidacy or what they perceived to be their challenges; those are whole board discussions and part of the deliberation process which should have been only with the board, not with an individual candidate,” Angelucci wrote in her email.
Angelucci said she and Scamihorn agreed that a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses should not be discussed in public “in an effort to embarrass or weaken him or her for any reason. The candidates’ pros and cons should only be discussed in executive session as a professional courtesy to all. The process should remain fair and consistent. It is our intent to request a meeting with Mr. Sweeney to discuss his statements. It is up to the Board as to any action taken.”
Common Core controversy
A Saturday New York Times’ article explored how the Common Core national standards have sparked an “establishment-versus-grass-roots” divide in the Republican Party.
Conservatives have denounced the national standards as “Obamacore,” believing it will lead to a federal takeover of schools and loss of local control, the article reports.
Yet criticism of Common Core isn’t limited to the political right. The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has called the rollout of the Common Core standards “completely botched.”
The Cobb school board has been front and center in the controversy, voting last year to reject a $7.5 million purchase of math textbooks affiliated with the Common Core standards and instead opting for digital resources.
Rozzo asked Sweeney and Nicholas about this vote. Sweeney said he was one of the board members who opposed rejecting the textbooks.
Sweeney said the digital resources that were purchased were working to a degree.
“But I talked to a lot of principals, and I asked them, ‘What’s working and what’s not working?’” he said. “Well, we have lots of students that don’t have online access at home. We have lots of students that have multiple children that are fighting for resources, not the least of which is trying to balance that with extracurricular activities.”
Sweeney emphasized the importance of giving teachers and students the resources they need.
“And what’s also happened is foundations are now purchasing these materials for schools, and the foundations are angry because those dollars were actually intended to go to perhaps reduced classroom sizes. So that’s my feeling on it. I really think that we need to put these resources into teachers’ hands,” Sweeney said.
Nicholas said he agreed providing teachers and students with the resources they need is important. But they need to be the right resources, he said.
Nicholas related how his son’s geometry teacher told him not to use the textbook because it doesn’t teach geometry the way it should be taught.
“Same thing in my sixth-grader’s class,” Nicholas said. “They use online resources and other resources. $7.5 million is a lot of money for textbooks if there is a potential change in curriculum. We need to be very careful though that we don’t put our teachers on a roller coaster of changing curriculums all the time.”
During this year’s legislation session, state Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) authored a bill that passed out of the Senate but was killed in the House and provided a pathway for Georgia to withdraw from the Common Core standards.
“I applaud Sen. Ligon’s progress in the Legislature to look at Common Core and try to move to a direction where it’s more palatable and maybe a little bit better for our kids,” Nicholas said. “So we need to look very closely coming up this year, and the next year, as far as what we’re doing with Common Core. Ultimately, we have to decide what’s best for our kids at the teacher level. We need to get their input.”
Among those in attendance was retired Dodgen Middle School principal Jim Snell, who has endorsed Sweeney.
Sitting next to Snell were retired Deputy Superintendent Alice Stouder, who interviewed for the position of interim superintendent but was not selected, and the district’s Chief Academic Officer Amy Krause. Stouder said she is also endorsing Sweeney for the job.
“I think it went very well,” Emily Yewell Volin, chair of the Sope Creek School Council and co-president of the Sope Creek Elementary PTA, said after the forum. “It was a good turnout. I was pleased to see the questions from the public that were sent to Cynthia were really addressed.”