DeKalb County school board fires Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris

DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony in 2020. She was terminated from her job on Tuesday.  (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)



DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony in 2020. She was terminated from her job on Tuesday. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

The DeKalb County School Board fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris at a meeting on Tuesday.

The board approved a separation agreement, effective immediately. No reason was stated for the termination.

“I want to thank Mrs. Watson-Harris for her service to DeKalb County School District and we wish her the best in her future endeavors,” Board Chair Vicki Turner said during the meeting.

A statement released after the meeting said the board’s relationship with Watson-Harris had been “deteriorating for some time to the point the association became irreconcilable.”

“The Board lost confidence in Mrs. Watson-Harris’ ability to provide the leadership the district needs in the face of significant challenges,” the statement said.

The board’s 4-1 vote to fire Watson-Harris happened during a virtual meeting. Vicki Turner, Diijon DaCosta, Anna Hill and Joyce Morley voted in favor of termination. Deirdre Pierce was the lone no vote. Two board members, Allyson Gevertz and Marshall Orson, were absent.

Vasanne Tinsley was named interim superintendent. She was formerly deputy superintendent of student support and intervention.

“The board has full confidence in Dr. Tinsley’s ability to operate the day-to-day operations of the DeKalb County School District,” Turner said, adding that she brings a “wealth of experience” to the position.

On July 1, 2020, Cheryl Watson-Harris, third from left, was installed as superintendent of the DeKalb County School District. Superintendent, third from left. She was surrounded by family members at the event. From left to right, in relation to Cheryl Watson-Harris, Claudia Houston (aunt), Helen Watson-McDougall (mother), Cheryl Watson-Harris, Luke Alexander (son), Dr. Roger Harris (husband), Michelle Houston (cousin). On April 26, 2022, Watson-Harris was fired by the school board. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)


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The termination comes on the same day that Turner blamed Watson-Harris for not addressing poor conditions at Druid Hills High School in a letter to Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods. The school has been the center of a districtwide debate after students released a video showing water-damaged ceilings and walls, electrical hazards and plumbing issues.

Watson-Harris, who has been in the job since July 2020, faced backlash early in her term as the district maintained strict mask mandates and remained virtual longer than many other school systems well into the pandemic.

More recently, she issued a public apology for “upsetting and questionable” job descriptions sent to about 7,000 employees with their contracts for the 2022-2023 school year. The contracts included a list of 10 “performance factors” such as “ignore irrelevant sights” and “maintain composure” when dealing with difficult people.

The board voted 6-1 to hire Watson-Harris in June 2020. Joyce Morley was the lone no vote. Morley said she was concerned the board was selecting a superintendent without similar credentials of other school district leaders in metro Atlanta.

Watson-Harris had never led a school district. With more than 93,000 students, DeKalb is the state’s third largest school district.

“There’s no way in the world anyone on this board would be looking for a nanny and select one who’s never gone to nanny school,” she said. “Something is wrong with that picture.”

Before coming to DeKalb, Watson-Harris was the first deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education. She was chosen to become DeKalb’s sixth superintendent in a decade.

 DeKalb County Board of Education chair Vickie Turner speaks during a meeting on April 18, 2022, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The board declined to take action on Druid Hills High School. On April 26, the board fired Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

After the confirmation vote, board member Marshall Orson said Watson-Harris’ “experience as both an innovator at the New York City Department of Education and a passionate champion for children is precisely what we need to continue positioning our students for success.”

Watson-Harris was not the first finalist for the DeKalb position. That was initially Rudy Crew, then president of New York’s Medgar Evers College. But weeks after naming Crew, the board voted 4-3 not to hire him.

Crew later sued the districts, saying it discriminated against him because of his age and race. The district settled the lawsuit a year ago for $750,000, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Watson-Harris signed a three-year contract with the district for $325,000 a year plus monthly spending and car allowances, among other perks.

Her official installation in July 2020 was a scaled-down event due to the coronavirus pandemic. Attendees wore masks unless speaking at the lectern. Seating was spaced for social distancing. Elbow rubs replaced hugs and handshakes.

“I applied to be the super of DeKalb County because I was excited about the work and the legacy and everything you’ve accomplished so far,” Watson-Harris said. “I’m truly humbled to have been selected. I’m looking forward to our journey together.”

She inherited a district still reeling from allegations of financial mismanagement. It also recently lost its credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service after falling behind on its financial audits.

“I’m hoping in me you will find not only a superintendent but a friend and someone that you know will work side-by-side with you to make DeKalb the No. 1 choice for all families here,” Watson-Harris said at the installation.