DeKalb school board candidates split on firing of superintendent

Candidates for the DeKalb County Board of Education are divided on the recent firing of Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. They’re also at odds over Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to sign into law legislation that limits how teachers can talk about race and racism.

The contested races for three seats on the seven-member board have taken on greater significance after the current board’s split decision to oust Watson-Harris after less than two years on the job.

Eight of the nine candidates shared their views in a questionnaire sent by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Incumbent Diijon DaCosta, who’s running for reelection in District 6, did not answer the form. He was one of four school board members who voted to fire Watson-Harris though, weeks earlier, he had praised her leadership.

“The superintendent … had the capability to take action to correct issues that existed at our schools and she did not take that action,” said Steven Bowden, a District 2 candidate who agreed with the firing.

But other candidates criticized the firing, noting that the school district has now had seven leaders in 12 years.

Candice McKinley, who is running against Whitney McGinniss and Bowden, also disagreed with the firing.

In District 4, incumbent Allyson Gevertz was critical of the board’s action and applauded Watson-Harris’ performance. Her opponent — Bonnie Chappell — took issue with the board’s decision-making process.

“The latest firing of a superintendent is symptomatic of a deeper issue, probably within the bureaucracy or board itself,” said District 6 candidate Janet Hughes.

That perspective was echoed by her opponent, Venola Mason, and District 2 candidate Wendy Hamilton.

Lance Hammonds, president of the DeKalb County NAACP, told board members on Monday they had put the students and community at risk by not doing the job they were elected to do.

“The buck does not stop with the superintendent. It does not stop with the school board. The buck stops with the citizens of DeKalb County,” he said. “We have a choice on May 24 to get this right.”

This month’s election is happening just weeks after Kemp signed into law legislation that curbs teachers from discussing “divisive concepts” in schools.

The divisive concepts bill is another hot-button issue for voters. The DeKalb candidates are also split over what a school system’s role is in teaching students about potentially controversial topics.

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Bowden, Chappell and Hughes said schools should stick to ensuring students are proficient in academic basics.

“Educational programs should promote facts based on history, solid research, unity among people and avoid finger-pointing,” Chappell said.

Gevertz, Hamilton, McGinniss and McKinley agree that education should be fact-based, but said teachers should be able to talk to students about topics like race in age-appropriate ways. They questioned whether the new law was necessary.

“Teachers are highly trained professionals, adept at handling kids’ queries,” Gevertz said. “Instead of questioning our teachers’ ability to handle potentially controversial topics, I would like to see lawmakers dramatically increase teacher pay to align with our teachers’ tremendous impact on our children and our society.”

The winners of the election won’t begin their term until January.