“This includes — but (is) not limited to — contract non-renewals, position abolishment, the hiring or firing of staff and investigative proceedings regarding allegations of misconduct.”
Several speakers ignored the instructions.
Parents like Dawn Brockington-Shaw expressed disappointment in Herring’s leadership.
“We thank you for meeting with us when you first arrived at APS,” she said. “We left the meetings feeling like you heard us and we were your allies. We had your back. As time progressed, we did not see progress and improvements.”
Herring’s supporters passionately defended her.
“The integrity, the character, and the grace and class and intellect at which she has taken the helm of APS since July 2020 is unprecedented,” said Herring’s pastor, E. Dewey Smith with House of Hope in south DeKalb County. “Everybody that’s in leadership and the educational business knows the past three years have been the most difficult years to make transitions. She’s not been given a fair opportunity to lead.”
Board members continued with the meeting without responding.
Why did the board decide not to renew Herring’s contract? Publicly, they’re saying little, only issuing an official statement through Collins. Several board members referred requests for comment to Collins. Others did not respond. Collins said she favored a contract extension, but that was not the desire of a majority of her board colleagues.
“I supported Dr. Herring, and felt that there (were) some spaces that still need improvement,” Collins told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But … it did not necessarily possibly rise to a non-renewal, but I respect my colleagues and the will of the board.”
Signs of trouble
The board’s decision to cut ties with Herring took some community members by surprise. An online petition implored the board to reconsider its decision. It has garnered more than 2,200 signatures.
Herring, too, expressed dismay. In a statement, she referenced her most recent performance review conducted by the board.
“In December of 2022, I received my last performance evaluation and satisfactory feedback with emphasis on the focus of additional engagement and stronger communications efforts. I have worked diligently to honor the work and expectations of our board and community.”
Herring declined an interview request.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Support for Herring seemed to erode over time. Her tenure began in June 2020 in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, most districts were scrambling to get tech devices, Wi-Fi access and food to families. Atlanta Public Schools remained remote longer than some other metro districts, such as Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Some of the communication problems cited by the board were related to changes to the school reopening schedule. Parents also complained about a sudden change to high school start times.
Once schools did return to in-person learning, problems at different schools caused the district headaches. A plan to open Virginia-Highland Elementary School in Midtown in August drew opposition from parents. The controversy continued when Herring quickly replaced the principal at the new school due to concerns about her work history. The principal at Howard Middle School left in September after parents complained about her management style.
This spring, students at Midtown High protested a plan to redistrict some students there to another underpopulated high school. Midtown students pointed out that students of color would be most affected by the proposal. The district ended up tabling its entire rezoning plan.
One online petition several months ago called for Herring’s ouster, citing issues such as the high percentage of students who fared poorly on last year’s Georgia Milestones exams in English language arts and math.
During the public comment period on June 5, parent Wykeisha Howe told meeting attendees not to feel bad for the outgoing superintendent.
“If you’re gonna feel bad, feel bad for the countless numbers of educators who have left the field in which they love because of terrible leadership,” said Howe.
Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, was not surprised by the board’s announcement. With five school board members up for reelection this fall, Turner said the move could be politically motivated to appease dissatisfied parents. She thinks it’s a mistake, though.
“(Herring) is an educator,” Turner said. “She seems to be no-nonsense. It’s unfortunate that we’re losing this lady.”
Herring’s defenders point to the district’s all-time-high graduation rate of 84%. She’s increased telehealth services for students. APS partnered with City Hall last year on an effort to improve child care and educational programs for children 3 and younger. In her statement, Herring says the district has met its goals for reading and math under her leadership.
A lot to tackle
Short tenures for district superintendents aren’t uncommon in metro Atlanta. State law allows school boards to offer superintendents contracts of up to three years. Once the three years have passed, boards can offer extensions of one to two years.
Research shows the average schools superintendent in the U.S. stays on the job for about six years. The average is around three years for superintendents in large urban districts due to stresses associated with the job — including juggling stakeholder demands. Clayton, Fayette, Fulton and Gwinnett counties all have relatively new interim or fully-appointed superintendents that either just started this year or have only been in their posts since 2019.
Steve Dolinger, who served as Fulton County’s superintendent from 1995 to 2002, said this kind of tension between school boards and superintendents is not new.
“One of the biggest challenges for a superintendent is to build and maintain a good relationship with all board members,” said Dolinger, president emeritus of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. “Since board members are elected, oftentimes those relationships are played out in a political arena and, unfortunately, that arena can turn into a battleground between board members and/or between board members and the superintendent.”
Whomever the school board taps to lead the district next will have a lot to tackle. Several APS schools are performing in the bottom 5% of schools in the state. That includes some schools that officials targeted for turnaround several years ago. Since scrapping its rezoning plan, the district will still need to figure out what to do with school buildings that are under and over capacity. Some elementary school parents are pushing APS to place more security measures in schools. Middle school parents are concerned about the possible elimination of advanced math courses.
Herring hoped to take on that work in the coming years. Collins made generally positive comments about her most recent evaluation in December. The review was done privately as allowed by law.
When asked why a majority of board members opposed an extension despite the seemingly satisfactory evaluation, Collins implied that Herring didn’t meet expectations.
“Part of our official statement … there was a portion of areas of improvement,” she said. “And so just based on those areas and having time for that, board members felt that … it rose to a level of not extending her contract beyond just 2024.”