Outcome of Cobb County's Post 4 school board race could determine board control

Incumbent Republican David Chastain (left) is facing Democrat Catherine Pozniak in the race for the Post 4 seat on the Cobb County School Board. (Photos courtesy Chastain, Pozniak campaigns)

Cobb County is one of the few metro Atlanta districts that still have partisan school board races. Right now, the board has four Republicans and three Democrats. But the upcoming Post 4 election could change that. Democratic newcomer Catherine Pozniak is taking on Republican incumbent David Chastain.

Cobb natives square off

Pozniak moved back to Cobb County at the beginning of the pandemic. She’d been working as the assistant superintendent of fiscal operations and federal support for the Louisiana Department of Education. She currently works as a consultant for Watershed Advisors.

“I went to the schools, actually, in the post that I’m running for,” she says. ”I live in the same home that I lived in when I grew up.”

A graduate of Sprayberry High School, Pozniak earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Harvard. She began her teaching career on a reservation in South Dakota. She’s certified as a K-8 teacher and has a superintendent’s endorsement.

“I felt like the combination of [growing up in Cobb and working in education] was a way in which I could contribute back to my community and that’s what prompted me to run,” she says.

Pozniak’s opponent, David Chastain has been on the board since 2015 and is currently the chair. He works as an analyst at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.  In a video on his campaign Facebook page, he touts his ties to the area.

“As a long-time resident of Cobb County, well 55 years, and I graduated from Cobb County schools,” he says. “My wife graduated from a Cobb County school. Our adult children graduated from Cobb County schools. Their spouses graduated from Cobb County schools. We have four grandchildren, and it looks like they will all graduate from Cobb County schools. I’m invested in the county. I’ve grown up here.”

A group of volunteers show their support for Pozniak’s campaign. (Martha Dalton/WABE)

Questionable spending

Some of the board’s spending has come under scrutiny, including a $12 million purchase of UV hand-rinsing stations that reportedly don’t work and spending $5 million on a security system that the district has now replaced after it malfunctioned. Such purchases were criticized by Cobb’s accrediting agency and a watchdog organization and examined by a Cobb County grand jury.

“Some of those purchases [parents are] seeing in their kids’ schools and really have questions about them,” Pozniak says. “I think a lot of that is due to — or these current circumstances — is due to a lack of oversight by the board.”

David Chastain didn’t respond to WABE’s multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. He’s publicly deflected questions about board spending but voted in favor of allocating money for the hand-rinsing stations. He has made student achievement a focal point of his campaign, pointing to the district’s SAT and state test scores as signs of the school board’s success.

“Our schools, teachers, and students continue to show why Cobb is ranked among the best despite some naysayers,” says a post on his campaign’s Facebook page. “Please vote for stability, proven results and safety.”

Pozniak doesn’t agree with Chastain’s assessment of Cobb’s test performance, pointing out that the high SAT average is driven by a handful of high schools. She also thinks the district should put more resources toward literacy instruction.

“I think this is a real pain point for parents,” she says. “A lot of Cobb parents are paying thousands of dollars every month to get tutors for their kids, they are pouring hundreds, if not thousands of dollars into school foundations that are raising, sometimes, six figures in a year to pay for teacher training.”

David Chastain has served on the Cobb school board since 2015. He’s focusing his campaign on student performance and his experience on the board. (Martha Dalton/WABE)

Dueling accusations

There are plenty of differences between the two candidates, and they’ve each made accusations about the other.

Pozniak filed a complaint against Chastain for accepting campaign donations over the legal limit. Donations are capped at $3,000 for each election cycle, the primary and the general. Chastain accepted two donations over that amount. He said he later filed an amendment to show the amounts were supposed to be split between election cycles. He said Pozniak took advantage of the amendment rule as well.

“This was about campaign contributions that were over the limit,” Pozniak said, explaining why she filed the complaint. “We are still raising money for this race, and … that sort of creates boundaries for each of our campaigns. So that, for me was the distinguishing factor.”

Chastain supporters and state Reps. Ginny Ehrhardt and John Carson accused Pozniak of illegally claiming a homestead exemption on her father’s former house, thereby avoiding paying property taxes. Pozniak responded that her family could document that they had legally settled her father’s affairs.

Ehrhart, a Republican from Marietta, also sponsored a redistricting bill favored by Republican board members instead of one recommended by the Cobb delegation. The other over-the-limit donation was made by a member of the law firm that drew the new map.

While Chastain has the support of some local business leaders, Republican state lawmakers and a group called Educators First, the Cobb County Association of Educators has endorsed Pozniak for the seat. CCAE President Jeff Hubbard says Chastain took himself out of the running by refusing to go through the interview process. He says the organization didn’t have to endorse anyone but chose to back Pozniak after vetting her.

“She literally has the qualifications on day one to go in and run 90% of the jobs in the school system,” Hubbard says.

Chastain has referred to the CCAE as “liberal” and “radical.” But the organization has endorsed Democrats and Republicans, including State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Marietta, and Republican State Superintendent Richard Woods. Hubbard says Pozniak’s party affiliation had nothing to do with the endorsement.

“It was not a slap at Mr. Chastain,” Hubbard says of the endorsement. “It was a look at Dr. Pozniak’s qualifications. Look at her career. She not only knows how to talk the talk, she has walked the walk in serving children and public education.”

Hubbard says having an “R” or “D” by a candidate’s name shouldn’t matter in a school board race. But the Cobb board’s partisan split has resulted in some party-line votes.

Three of seven school board seats are up for election this year. Whoever wins, the board’s biggest test may be whether members can put political issues aside and come together to govern the state’s second-largest school district.