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Weaponizing Race: School board districts in Georgia county challenged by SPLC lawsuit

The Southern Poverty Law Center and its partners filed a lawsuit last week that challenges the Cobb County, Georgia, school board map, arguing that the new boundaries intentionally discriminate against communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx voters, by “packing” them into a small number of districts to diminish their voting power.

The lawsuit describes how the school board and Georgia legislators used racial demographic information to group voters of color into just three districts and whitewash the four remaining districts. The use of racial demographic information to diminish the voting power of Black and Latinx communities violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“By unconstitutionally using race data to pack voters of color into just three districts, the school board and state Legislature are denying Cobb’s communities of color a fair say in how their schools are run and how their children are taught,” said Poy Winichakul, senior voting rights staff attorney with the SPLC. “We must replace these maps so communities can ensure their children are receiving the investment and quality education that they deserve.”

Cobb County is the third-most-populous county in Georgia, with just over 766,000 people, and is one of the most rapidly diversifying counties in the state. Between 2010 and 2020, Cobb moved from a majority-white (56%) county to one where people of color comprise 52% of the population, with the white population dropping at a rate almost double that of the reduction in white population across the state. Accompanying the demographic shift is a clear growth in the political strength of voters of color.

“Cobb County has rapidly grown more diverse over the last decade,” said Rahul Garabadu, voting rights staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia. “But instead of celebrating this diversity, the Cobb County School Board has weaponized race to draw a map that purposely diminishes the voices of Black and Latinx voters. Our clients are taking Cobb County to court to fight for maps that represent the interests of all children.”

While Cobb County contains the city of Marietta, the Marietta city schools are separate from Cobb County schools and not included in the litigation.

The failure to provide full representation to communities of color in Cobb County has already had detrimental effects for students. In reaction to the county’s growing diversification, the state and county’s white, conservative leaders have enacted policies that harm children of color and attempt to stymie the growing political power of voters of color.

“Let’s be clear: the Cobb County School Board blatantly chose to entrench the power of white incumbents at the expense of rapidly growing communities of color,” said Chris Shenton, voting rights legal fellow at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Black and Latinx parents brought this suit to demand a seat at the table and a hand in shaping their children’s future.”

Notably, the school board’s four-member white-majority recently enacted policies that silence Black board members and their constituents. These include a post-2020 election rule that makes it impossible for Black board members to add items to meeting agendas; the dismantling of a committee to rename Wheeler High School, which is currently named after a Confederate general; refusal to entertain school COVID mitigation strategies advanced by Black members of the school board and their constituents; refusal to modify policies that disproportionately suspend, expel and criminalize children of color; and passage of resolutions to ban inclusive education, “The 1619 Project” and other similar materials in schools. Cobb County schools were also at risk of losing their accreditation, in part due to findings that white school board members mistreated Black school board members.

“For too long, the white majority board members in Cobb County have ignored the experiences and voices of Black parents, students and community members and denied Black students like my son appropriate public education and opportunities for him to grow and thrive,” said Karen Finn, mother of a student attending Cobb County schools. “We need a school board that actually represents Cobb County, acts in the best interests of Cobb County students, and gives fair representation to communities of color.”

In Georgia, county-level redistricting maps must be approved by the state General Assembly through the legislative process. For these school board maps, the Legislature bypassed local legislation rules, which would have required prior negotiation and approval by the legislative members representing Cobb, and instead moved the proposed school board map through the general legislation process. This allowed them to bring the bills before committees with white, conservative majorities and onto the floor of both chambers, controlled by the conservative majority.

The New Georgia Project Action Fund, the League of Women Voters of Marietta-Cobb, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (“GALEO”) and individual Cobb County parents, students and activists brought the lawsuit. The SPLC, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, ACLU of Georgia, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Schulte, Roth & Zabel LLP are representing them in the effort.

Photo at top: Voters wait in line for up to two hours to early vote at the Cobb County West Park Government Center on Oct. 18, 2018, in Marietta, Georgia. (Credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)