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Articles and Investigations – ProPublica: School Board Candidates Who Criticized the Hiring of a Black DEI Educator Lose Their Elections

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Two Georgia school board candidates who criticized the hiring of a Black educator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives lost their runoff elections this week. Meanwhile, a person who helped organize the effort to push educator Cecelia Lewis out of her job is narrowly losing her bid for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

The three were described in a ProPublica story last week that detailed how Lewis was attacked in both Cherokee County and neighboring Cobb County by white parents making baseless claims that she was bringing critical race theory to both school districts. (CRT maintains that racial bias is embedded in America’s laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color; it’s rarely if ever taught in K-12 public school systems.)

State House candidate Noelle Kahaian, a paralegal and conservative nonprofit leader, is trailing her opponent by 23 votes. The state has until July 1 to certify results, and candidates who come within half a percentage point of their opponent can request a recount.

The two Cherokee County school board candidates, Sean Kaufman and Ray Lynch, were defeated by wide margins on Tuesday. They were part of a four-candidate slate attempting to gain a majority for a more conservative school board. That collective effort, dubbed 4CanDoMore, was endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC, a new super PAC that touted victories of far-right school board candidates it had backed in multiple states. The two other 4CanDoMore candidates, Michael “Cam” Waters and Chris Gregory, had lost to incumbents in the May 24 primary.

In a statement to ProPublica, Cherokee County School District Chief Communications Officer Barbara Jacoby said that the group of people who targeted Lewis “do not speak for our community, as was illustrated when their candidates failed in their recent attempt to win a majority on the School Board. We do not support hate, and we are deeply sorry for how Ms. Lewis and her family were treated by these members of our community.”

Kaufman, Lynch and Kahaian did not respond to requests for comments. In a public statement to his Facebook page, Kaufman congratulated his opponent, Erin Ragsdale. “I truly believe that Cherokee County had some incredible candidates — and we really could not lose,” he wrote. “I wish her the very best and give her my full support in the November election.”

Lewis, an accomplished middle school principal from Maryland, was hired in the spring of 2021 as the Cherokee County School District’s first-ever administrator devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Community members targeted Lewis soon after her hire was announced. Kahaian, the state House candidate, was a presenter in a meeting during which plans to push Lewis out of her job were hatched. Parents went on to attack Lewis’ credentials and wrongfully accuse her of promoting critical race theory.

Lewis quit the job before she even started, following a chaotic school board meeting during which board members and students were evacuated and escorted to safety amid threatening outbursts from attendees.

Months later, parents using a private Facebook group began complaining that Lewis had a new job in neighboring Cobb County. (People with access to the group shared screenshots of posts with ProPublica.) She’d been hired as that district’s social studies supervisor. She lasted just two months there, resigning from the position after the district received an onslaught of erroneous complaints about her supposed intentions to indoctrinate children through CRT.

After ProPublica published its story about the community’s campaign against Lewis, one woman wrote in the parents’ private Facebook group: “Looks like we should prepare for antifa here in Cherokee County. I’m genuinely concerned for those names listed in that piece.”

Community members who disagree with those who targeted Lewis have been hesitant to speak up, according to Mandy Marger, a mother of two whose family moved to Cherokee County a decade ago.

Marger said she was encouraged by the outcome of the runoffs.

“The idea that groups who had such extreme views thought that they could grab a hold of our community was frightening,” Marger said. “They made it very clear that those of us who did not align with them were going to have to stand up, and I’m really, really proud of our community — especially today — that we did.”

Jacoby said in her statement that Lewis’ departure was the district’s loss.

“No one wants their community to be the place where a story like this unfolds, but it is important for us all to understand what happened and reflect on what we can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Jacoby said. “It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of misinformation and what can happen when you judge others based on falsehoods spread on social media or by people with political agendas.”

Articles and Investigations – ProPublica