Cobb County School Board and Board of Elections Maps Unconstitutionally “Pack” Voters of Color into 3 Districts, Denying Black and Latinx Communities’ Opportunity for Full Representation
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), ACLU of Georgia, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyer’s Committee) and Schulte, Roth & Zabel LLP (SRZ), filed litigation challenging the Cobb County School Board map for discriminating against communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx voters, by “packing” them into a small number of districts to dilute their voting power.
The lawsuit, Finn v. Cobb County Board of Elections, describes how the school board and Georgia legislators used racial demographic information to “pack” voters of color into three districts (Districts 2, 3, and 6), and whitewash the four remaining districts. The use of racial demographic information to diminish the voting power of Black and Latinx communities violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The voting rights organizations filed the litigation on behalf of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, The League of Women Voters of Marietta-Cobb, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda (GCPA), the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), and individual Cobb County parents.
“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 SPLC. “We must replace these maps so communities can ensure their children are receiving the investment and quality education that they deserve.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The Cobb County School District’s latest district lines are a naked attempt to disenfranchise Black and Latinx voters and deny them an equal voice in their schools,” said Damon Hewitt from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Cobb County parents and students have already been ignored when raising concerns about reading standards, equal access for students with disabilities, and incidents of racism in schools. Our clients are taking action to ensure the parents and students of Cobb County are able to have their voices heard at the ballot box and beyond.”
“The makeup of Cobb County’s Board of Education should reflect its community, but the racially gerrymandered map at issue in this case has made that impossible,” said Thomas L. Mott with Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. “We’re honored to join a great team of civil rights advocates and to leverage our extensive experience in litigation to support the Black and Latinx voters of Cobb County.”
Upon filing, plaintiffs said:
“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.”
“The Cobb County school board has refused to address the needs of children of color such as renaming a school named after a confederate general, addressing incidents of bullying and hate speech, and ensuring quality literacy education,” said Aklima Khondoker, Chief Legal Officer with the New Georgia Project Action Fund. “That is why we must replace the current district map with one that provides equal representation to communities of color: so the needs of all Cobb County children can be recognized and addressed by the school board.”
In Cobb County, voters of all races come together to elect candidates who represent the needs of voters of color,” said Maxie Kirk-Williams, President of the League of Women Voters of Marietta-Cobb. “That’s why the LWVMC fought for a school board map that fairly represented the families, parents, and children of Cobb, and why we are proud to stand with voters of color to challenge a school board map that is using race to divide us.”
“With this litigation, Cobb County parents and students are standing up to take ownership of education in their community,” said Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “That means replacing the current map that ‘packs’ together Black and Latinx communities so parents and students can elect a school board that reflects the community and serves the best interests of Cobb County students.”
“Despite the growing diversity of Cobb County, the current district map ‘packs’ together Latinx and Black communities to diminish their voice in government and ensure a majority white school board,” said Jerry Gonzalez CEO of GALEO. “Even worse, the school board followed up the discriminatory maps by ignoring the interests and concerns of Latinx and Black parents and students. We need a school board map that reflects the community – Latinx and Black parents must have an equal say in the education of their children.”
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%) to a majority-BIPOC county (52%), 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. While Cobb County contains the city of Marietta, the Marietta city schools are separate from Cobb County schools and not included in this litigation.
In Georgia, county-level redistricting maps must be approved by the 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 complaint alleges that the maps violate the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law by using race to segregate and cabin Black and Latinx voters into the three south Cobb districts, despite the trending and rapid growth of these communities.
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. Notably, the school board’s 4-member white-majority recently enacted policies that silence Black board members and their constituents. This includes 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 critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and other similar materials in schools. Cobb County schools were also at risk of non-accreditation, in part due to findings that white school board members mistreated Black school board members.