DeKalb County school board split on best choice for superintendent

Some in community also question whether candidate is ready for large district

Credit: Photos provided

Credit: Photos provided

A day after the DeKalb County school board announced Devon Horton as its sole finalist for the superintendent job, board member Joyce Morley said she and her colleagues were split behind closed doors over who to select.

Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley was ranked as a better candidate by the group hired to conduct the superintendent search, Morley said in an interview Wednesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“He wasn’t one of the top five” candidates, Morley said about Horton, superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65, just north of Chicago. “Tinsley was in the top five ... It came down to him or her.”

The school board hired the Georgia School Boards Association to facilitate the superintendent search. The group uses “an external committee of education professionals employed by GSBA” to evaluate the applications, according to documents describing its process. The group then presents those evaluations and background check findings to the board.

Tinsley was ranked in the first tier of applicants and Horton in the second, Morley said. Morley supports Tinsley for the permanent job.

The AJC contacted board chair Diijon DaCosta, as well as Horton and Tinsley, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. Board vice chair Deirdre Pierce said she cannot confirm or deny what Morley said.

DaCosta said in a news release Tuesday that the board is confident Horton will lead DeKalb with “integrity and excellence.” Pierce told the AJC his statement “speaks to pretty much how the board feels.”

The divide on the board over DeKalb’s next leader mirrors the split in the community. Some people think Horton’s fresh eyes will be a good thing for the state’s third-largest district. But others think Tinsley has demonstrated effective leadership already, and should stay in the role.

The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 serves 6,500 K-8 students. DeKalb, by contrast, has about 93,000 students. Horton previously worked as the chief of schools for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, a district with 100,000 students. Horton’s work and research focuses on equity.

Tinsley came out of retirement to serve as DeKalb’s interim leader after the board fired Cheryl Watson-Harris from the position in a split vote in April 2022. Before her retirement in 2020, Tinsley was the district’s deputy superintendent of student support and intervention. As interim superintendent, she has been credited with improving the condition of district facilities, filling vacant leadership roles and prioritizing student and employee mental health.

The board is making a “grave mistake” by not hiring Tinsley for the permanent role, said Deborah Jones, the president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.

“(Dr. Tinsley) stabilized the district at a time when we were going downhill very quickly,” she said. “DeKalb is a beast. If you’re not ready for this district, if you have not been in a district similar to this one, you’re not going to make it.”

Jones believes that Tinsley’s history with DeKalb helps make her a great leader. But others in the community think DeKalb needs someone new.

“I’m glad this is a person that didn’t come out of the school district,” said Kay Colson, a community member who has come to the board several times to urge them to hire an experienced and proven leader. “I think they need change.”

But others think more change is the last thing the DeKalb school district needs. Whoever the board hires will be the ninth superintendent in the district since 2010.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, who recently endorsed Tinsley for the job, said someone coming from outside DeKalb would face a steep learning curve.

“Certainly if I was on the board and I had to vote, I would have voted for stability. Someone with a known track record,” he said. “I’ve been running businesses for 30 years. I would never, ever take that kind of gamble on a CEO ... It just doesn’t make much sense to me.”

The school board has scheduled meetings next week for DeKalb residents to meet Horton. According to the timeline posted to the district’s website, the board will appoint a superintendent in May. Tinsley is expected to stay on through June.