DeKalb school board District 2: Four candidates want Orson’s open seat

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Four candidates are seeking to fill Marshall Orson’s seat on the DeKalb County Board of Education. Orson, a veteran board member, is running for the county commission.

The winner will represent northwest parts of the county.

Two of the four — Whitney McGinniss and Candice McKinley — said the board should not have fired Cheryl Watson-Harris from her position as superintendent. Wendy Hamilton and Steven Bowden disagree with how it was done. Bowden said change was required.

All four candidates say they would have voted against the board majority and in favor of modernizing Druid Hills High School in accordance with the district’s master plan.

Bowden, 39, is a preconstruction manager who said he would be able to help spend taxpayer money wisely. Hamilton, 47, is a hair stylist and one of the founding members of the Coalition for a Safe DCSD. McGinniss, 38, works in public administration and has served on a number of parent and advisory committees in the district. McKinley, 42, is an attorney who formerly worked as an Atlanta teacher and a DeKalb district employee.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked candidates to answer five questions. Their answers are published below.

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AJC: Do you agree or disagree with the school board’s decision to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent?

Bowden: The board was faced with a tough decision and acted in a manner that they thought was appropriate. While I do not agree with the process that took place leading up to the decision, I ultimately agree that a change was required. The superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the district, and she had the capability to take action to correct issues that existed at our schools and she did not take that action. For example, that state of our school buildings. She had access to the funds to take care of some of the maintenance and other items.

Hamilton: I disagree with the way this was handled.

McGinniss: I disagree with the decision to fire Superintendent Watson-Harris. The manner of her firing was unethical and unprofessional. It has opened the district up to possible litigation and further erodes public trust in the DeKalb County Board of Education. Watson-Harris held her position for less than two years (one of those years was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic). Although what I saw and heard of Watson-Harris’s performance was largely positive, two years is not enough time for anyone to accurately evaluate the performance of a superintendent overseeing a large government institution like the DeKalb school district. Real change takes time, effort and commitment. Now, due to the BOE’s rash decision, we will be starting over with our eighth superintendent in 12 years, with each of these transitions setting our district even further behind on important metrics like student achievement, teacher recruitment and retention and building repairs and maintenance.

McKinley: Disagree. I acknowledge the fact that it’s within the board’s purview to hire and fire the superintendent. However, the board’s authority to remove the superintendent should be coupled with transparency especially when there is a long history of turnover. Parents, teachers, staff and the community at large were not properly notified that the board had the intention to make such a critical decision that impacts us all. A decision that has a substantial effect on the district’s finances, raises legal concerns and disrupts the culture of the district as a whole.

The board recently opted not to modernize Druid Hills High in accordance with the comprehensive master plan. Instead, it voted to add the most critical projects at each school. If you were on the board, how would you have voted?

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Bowden: I would have voted to follow the master plan, including modernizing Druid Hills High. There was a process to rank the schools with the most pressing needs and the board decided to abandon that process. They solicited firms for the evaluation process and spent funds for that process. If they didn’t intend to follow through, then why did they waste taxpayer money?

Hamilton: I would have voted to include Druid Hills High School on the list of critical projects. The comprehensive master plan addressed all of the issues across the district.

McGinniss: I would have voted to continue with the recommendations outlined in the comprehensive master plan, including the modernization of Druid Hills High School. I was involved in the master plan process as a community and parent stakeholder, and I’ve had multiple conversations with the consulting team over the last 12 months. What I saw was a transparent and methodical process that examined objective data and stakeholder feedback to inform its recommendations. I believe the master plan is a valuable roadmap that, if followed, would allow the district to tackle many challenges simultaneously — including overcrowded, outdated, poorly maintained and underutilized school buildings. Although I agree that addressing deferred maintenance is critically important, a plan that only tackles those repairs is short-sighted and simplistic, does not move our district forward and will ultimately be more expensive over the long term.

McKinley: I would have voted no with a caveat. The board should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time. The board should follow the comprehensive master plan as well as provide equity across the district to ensure safety and security for all students wherever they attend school. We are “One DeKalb,” a diverse district that must have leadership that works together in a thoughtful and professional manner for the students’ benefit.

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AJC: What do you think is the most important experience or traits for the next superintendent to have?

Bowden: The next superintendent needs to have experience taking a school system in disarray and turning it around. Our school buildings are in dire need of improvements. Teachers are leaving the district due to the fact that if they speak up or voice an opinion, there is a history of retaliation. I want to hear a plan to correct that and to retain our teachers and recruit top tier talent. I want a superintendent who has a clear plan of working together with the state to get the district moving in the right direction. I also want someone who can gain the trust of the board so that members of the board don’t feel the need to meddle in the day-to-day operations. The board doesn’t exist to be a part of the day-to-day operations of the district. Finally, I want a superintendent who has a track record of increasing student performance. Our district has a history of subpar test scores, and I think COVID and remote learning is only going to make that worse. The school district exists to educate our students and I want that to be a focus for the next superintendent.

Hamilton: Ideally, I’d like to find a superintendent that has a track record of overhauling the work culture in their previous district. Our system is broken. We need someone who will clean house and implement changes so we can focus on educating our students.

McGinniss: I want to start by expressing my fear and frustration that it may be difficult to find a quality superintendent, given the current climate and controversy surrounding the DeKalb school district. This was a foreseeable consequence that I wish the current (Board of Education) would have considered before firing Superintendent Watson-Harris. Regardless, I believe our next superintendent needs to be experienced in managing a large government enterprise: DeKalb has a budget of more than $2 billion, with 15,500 employees, 140 school buildings and nearly 94,000 students. The next superintendent will also have to be a bridge and relationship builder — not just with the school board, but with the community and with state officials who have now pledged involvement in the district’s affairs. Finally, our next superintendent will need to be an experienced crisis manager, who has a proven record of correcting the course of troubled institutions.

McKinley: The superintendent must be approachable, have high interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, be results driven and have a keen ability to work collectively with a diverse group of forward thinking leaders who are laser focused on student success.

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AJC: Republican lawmakers worked this year to limit discussions of race in schools and prohibit “divisive concepts.” What are your thoughts on those efforts and the role of public schools in educating students about potentially controversial topics?

Bowden: The school district needs to first focus on the basics of education: reading, writing, math, STEM, etc. The district currently isn’t addressing the issues our students have with mastering the basics and it needs to be a primary area of focus. These basic skills are what will prepare our students for the next steps in their learning career and should be the primary focus until the results show tremendous improvement. We have to improve the test scores for the district and that is where the focus should be.

Hamilton: I believe our students need to be taught age-appropriate, factual material. We can’t gloss over events like the Holocaust and slavery just because we don’t like how certain people are portrayed.

McGinniss: I think it is unfortunate that the “party of Lincoln” has elected to restrict discussions regarding race, racism and slavery in Georgia’s public schools. I believe that public schools should introduce students to a variety of perspectives, foster healthy debate and develop critical thinking skills. Within age-appropriate guidelines, I believe students should be exposed to difficult, complex and controversial topics. It is better for our children to encounter and discuss these subjects at home and in the classroom, than it is for their understanding to be formed by their peers, social media or the internet. Finally, slavery is a part of our past and racism is a part of our present. To deny these realities is to deny our children a quality and comprehensive public education.

McKinley: The decision was political and not in the best interest of students. As a former teacher, I understand the need to ensure our students are well-rounded critical thinkers prepared to enter society. We cannot and should not shield our students from the truth of our history. Nor should the Legislature contravene into the autonomy school districts and their brilliant teachers and staff have to teach the standard curriculum.

AJC: What is the most critical issue currently facing the DeKalb County School District? How would you have the district address it?

Bowden: I think this is twofold. The state of our school buildings needs to be addressed. Students shouldn’t be expected to learn in buildings that simply aren’t safe. Our teachers should be able to focus on our students first and not have to worry about the building (where) they go to work every day, nor should they be worried that they are going to be unfairly treated by the administration. The second part is the focus needs to shift back to students being first. DeKalb’s students deserve to be given the opportunity to succeed, and the school board has failed them. It’s time for a change.

Hamilton: We need to have a third party investigate the board and leadership. ... Now is the time to find the root causes of the issues that plague our district.

McGinniss: For much of the last five years, if you had asked me this question, my answer would have been our poorly maintained, overcrowded and outdated school buildings. For example, it was an HVAC issue at my daughter’s school that thrust me into school advocacy and has ultimately resulted in my desire to serve on the BOE. This view was also confirmed in the results of a 2019 stakeholder survey, which listed facilities as the district’s greatest weakness. However, I now feel that even more troubling is the lack of forethought, cooperation and ethics displayed by some of our current school board members. This was echoed in the district’s recent Cognia accreditation report, which highlighted a lack of cooperation and professionalism on the (Board of Education). I consider both of these to be top priorities that I will work every day to address if elected to serve you.

McKinley: The lack of accountability — a word that is used regularly at the leadership level and not adhered to in practice. District administrators, local school leaders and the board must be accountable for their actions, must show a high level of professionalism and remain focused on serving the students of the district. I would address the need for greater accountability by getting to the root cause(s) of the district’s financial and legal challenges. By tackling these challenges head on through audit protocols and having uncomfortable conversations — we will be able to close the long-standing divide between the north v. south sectors of the district that feed into defective leadership. District leaders can learn from our students at Druid Hills High School that when working together and strategically advocating for their needs — results are achieved.