New Cobb school board chair wants to build bridges

Jan. 24—Brad Wheeler Age: 68 Occupation: Retired teacher, coach and administrator Family: Wife, Kathy; sons Zach and Seth Hometown: Utica, NY City of residence: Powder Springs Education: Undergraduate, Berry College, Health and Physical Education; Master's, Jacksonville State University, School Administration Party affiliation: Republican

MARIETTA — Brad Wheeler is no stranger to leading the Cobb County School District.

A retired coach, educator and administrator who spent his career with the Cobb, Cherokee and Paulding school districts, Wheeler is entering his 11th year on the Cobb Board of Education.

This year marks the third time he has served as board chairman, most recently in 2020.

Uniting a divided board

Wheeler, a Republican, is leading a board that has seen a bitter partisan divide in recent years, with the Republican majority voting one way and the Democrats voting another. After last year's elections, the split continues (as seen in the vote for chair), with two new Democrats elected to replace two that stepped down: Becky Sayler and Nichelle Davis.

A coach of various sports teams during his time as an educator, Wheeler said the change in players on a team is similar to that of the board.

"Previous other boards that I've been on, too, it's the same thing, the boards are who the people are, how they work with each other," he said. "It's not the same team, but you can still work together to achieve whatever your goal is."

Division on the board has become the norm over the last four years. The 4-3 split has been particularly pronounced during debates on hot-button issues, such as school safety, Superintendent Chris Ragsdale's contract, redistricting and teaching about race in the classroom. Wheeler said every board member's voice should be heard, and that he would be listening to all perspectives as chair.

Already, Wheeler has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle. Wheeler appointed the senior Democrat on the board, Leroy Tre' Hutchins, to be the board liaison to the district's Facilities and Technology Committee. Hutchins was a student at Pebblebrook High School when Wheeler worked there as a coach and teacher from 1984-2001.

"I look forward to the collaboration. We're already starting to see some of those things take place as board members, and I'm looking forward to that being further established throughout the year," Hutchins said.

Hutchins said he and Wheeler had developed a rapport long before Hutchins was elected to the school board, something that has not changed since elected office, "despite what the narrative may be."

With that relationship already in place, Hutchins is hopeful it will be expanded upon this year with Wheeler at the board's helm.

That hope also stems from Wheeler's willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and find common ground in polarizing territory, according to Hutchins.

"Brad Wheeler is fair and open to communication and collaboration so with that, I think we're going to have a very successful year as we move forward to address the concerns of all board members," Hutchins said.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, echoed Hutchins, praising Wheeler's "very quiet and deliberative manner.

"He is going to be seeking out all voices on the issues before moving forth," Hubbard said. "That also goes back to his career as an educator, making sure that all of the professionals' voices are heard, and so we're excited to see what he's gonna bring to the board as the chair."

Diverse wants, diverse needs

Wheeler said the seven communities, or posts, represented by each school board member are unique.

"They have different wants and needs, and that's one of the things you learn when you come on the board — how big this operation is," he said.

The students that comprise these seven posts are also unique, Wheeler said, and while college prep should be a priority for the district, so should improving and expanding upon the district's career, technical and agricultural education offerings.

"I'm a big supporter of our career tech programs. I'd like to see that expanded, because those kids are job-ready now," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said the board's two biggest roles are approving the district's budget and any policy changes proposed by Ragsdale and his staff. Thus, he added, those would remain his priorities for the new year.

He also discussed his stance on a number of controversial issues raised at board meetings.

One is "No Place for Hate," an Anti-Defamation League program for schools that focuses on fighting bullying and bias. The program was removed from Cobb schools shortly after a party-line vote in 2021 to ban critical race theory in the district, Rabbi Larry Sernovitz of Temple Kol Emeth said at the time.

"That's a district decision. I would like to hear ... what's the pros and cons" of the program, Wheeler said when asked if he wants to bring the program back. "Some things sound good, but there's more to it than just something that sounds good."

Wheeler said he expect Ragsdale to advocate for the program if the superintendent believes it benefits schools.

"If this is good for our children and kids, you'd think that that would be advocated for," Wheeler said. "If it's not, maybe there's something different that may be better."

The fight against bullying and prejudice in school is a daily battle, he said.

In the past few years, the school board has also faced pressure from students, alumni and activists to rename Wheeler High School. The east Cobb high school is named for Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate general (no relation to Brad Wheeler).

As chair in 2020, Wheeler joined the board's three Democrats in establishing a committee to consider renaming both Wheeler and Walton high schools. The effort was short-lived: In a matter of two months, Wheeler had joined the three Republicans in dissolving the committee although residents continue to attend board meetings to campaign for a name change.

Wheeler told the MDJ he would refer to David Banks, the board member representing the Wheeler High School area, on the issue of renaming the school. Wheeler said he, like previous chair David Chastain, has heard from alumni that they want to keep the name.

The chairman said he "heard from both sides" when he last served as board chair, though he said it was not as big of an issue then. Now, he said, he would expect the change to come from within the Wheeler High community, though it is not something the chairman himself would advocate.

"I would be more focused on other issues that are dealing with daily operations, the safety, the stability of the district," he said.

Another battle brewing in the school district is over the new school board map that changed post boundaries to accommodate the latest census numbers.

A lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Georgia in June by a coalition of civil rights and left-leaning groups, alongside several Cobb parents, alleges the map disenfranchised voters of color. As previously reported by the MDJ, the district recently hired Cumberland-based law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary to represent the district in the federal lawsuit.

The Journal asked Wheeler if he believed it was a good move to hire the firm. Wheeler said he would not comment on a pending legal matter. It is also unclear whether Ragsdale retained the firm on his own or the board voted to authorize the hire, as Wheeler declined to comment on that detail.

'We're not running the schools'

Wheeler said community support for Cobb schools sets it apart from other Georgia school districts. Even with that support, Wheeler said the challenge for the district remains spreading quality education across seven posts that include more than 107,000 students, especially considering the various interests of those different areas.

He also noted that the role of the board is not to be involved in the day-to-day happenings at Cobb schools.

"We're not running the schools," Wheeler said. "When we get involved in daily operations, that's not a good thing."

For that reason, he said, it's up to Ragsdale and his staff to determine what the biggest challenges facing the district are, and how those challenges should be addressed.

"That's not our role," Wheeler said of the board. "We want to provide a safe, secure, stable school system for our children, so that they can learn, and when they leave, they can step out and compete, whether they're going onto academics, or they're going to the trades, or the military or whatever."

One area where Wheeler has plenty of sway in is leading board meetings.

"You run that meeting, you want to keep people on track and working, going forward, and doing that," he said.

He said all that he does on the board and as its chair comes back to one question.

"Does this benefit the kids in our communities?" Wheeler said.

Wheeler said there's not much debate on certain issues, like disposing of damaged materials, while other topics produce more discussion, hopefully, because a board member is advocating for their community above all else.

"I'm gonna go back to the old coach in me," Wheeler said. "When you're dealing with children, it's more than just a test score. Are we doing the things that are providing a quality education and helping these children...Are you doing the things that you can to move them forward?"