DeKalb school board members who fired superintendent hint at reasons

DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie Turner was one of four board members who voted to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as the district's superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie Turner was one of four board members who voted to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as the district's superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

A blowup over building conditions at an aging DeKalb County high school publicly appeared to be a tipping point in the school board’s decision to fire the district’s superintendent, but relations soured months earlier.

Four school board members united to oust Cheryl Watson-Harris last week, but gave no explanation. Watson-Harris, who said she was blindsided by the firing, had led the state’s third-largest district and its nearly 94,000 students for less than two years.

Board members Vickie Turner, Anna Hill and Joyce Morley have since suggested multiple motives — management of finances, personnel decisions, student achievement — but offered no supportive evidence. In a statement after the firing, the board said its relationship with Watson-Harris had deteriorated over time.

Diijon DaCosta, who also supported the firing, has said nothing. Days before the vote, he heralded Watson-Harris for her leadership of the district in a candidate’s Q&A for the website decaturish.com.

“We seriously doubt that we’re going to ever get the full story,” said an elementary teacher with almost 30 years of experience in DeKalb schools. The AJC agreed to withhold her name because she fears speaking publicly would jeopardize her job.

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Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley (left) alongside DeKalb School Board Chair Vickie Turner and board members Diijon DaCosta and Anna Hill speak at a news conference on April 27, 2022. The three school board members, along with board member Joyce Morley, voted to oust Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley (left) alongside DeKalb School Board Chair Vickie Turner and board members Diijon DaCosta and Anna Hill speak at a news conference on April 27, 2022. The three school board members, along with board member Joyce Morley, voted to oust Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley (left) alongside DeKalb School Board Chair Vickie Turner and board members Diijon DaCosta and Anna Hill speak at a news conference on April 27, 2022. The three school board members, along with board member Joyce Morley, voted to oust Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Watson-Harris was fired without cause. Discussions ahead of the board’s vote were held behind closed doors.

In a meeting days later, Turner — the board’s chair — said recently high failure rates at FLEX Academy, the district’s virtual program, helped form her decision.

Watson-Harris and her administration said at a meeting in February that enrollment in the program tripled last fall, overwhelming staff and technology. It took about a month to fix. By the end of the fall semester, 62% of students passed their classes, they told board members, who thanked them for the transparency.

ExploreDeKalb Board of Education approves interim superintendent’s contract

Last Friday, board member Allyson Gevertz took issue with criticisms being made about Watson-Harris by some board members, including Turner.

“Just because a board member says something does not mean it’s true,” she said.

Gevertz and Marshall Orson were absent from last week’s vote to terminate Watson-Harris’ contract. Both have since supported the former superintendent. The other board member — Deirdre Pierce — voted no.

In the days and months leading up to the firing, outside agencies scrutinized and criticized the school board’s leadership — not the superintendent’s. Cognia, the state’s largest accreditation agency, recently questioned board members’ ability to work together to govern the district.

“It is incumbent upon every board member to set aside personal agendas and focus their efforts on governing together in the best interest of the school system,” the agency’s report said.

ExploreIn DeKalb school district, revolving door of superintendents a constant

More recently, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods chastised the school board for not addressing “unacceptable” building conditions at Druid Hills High School. After his letter became public last week, Turner responded with a letter blaming Watson-Harris for the school’s woes.

A few hours later, Watson-Harris was fired.

“Whether it was justified or not, I don’t know because I’m not privy to the facts,” said DeKalb County CEO and former superintendent Michael Thurmond. “But there’s a broader concern about the overall governance of the school district.”

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Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony as superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on July 1, 2020. Last week, four members of the Board of Education united to fire her.(Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony as superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on July 1, 2020. Last week, four members of the Board of Education united to fire her.(Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

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Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony as superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on July 1, 2020. Last week, four members of the Board of Education united to fire her.(Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Board member Hill recently said she repeatedly asked Watson-Harris and her staff to address accounting discrepancies between two systems that were supposed to track expenditures on construction projects. A lawsuit filed in March by the district’s former chief operating officer makes similar allegations.

Watson-Harris said in February that the accounting differences had been reconciled. The district was implementing new procedures moving forward to avoid those issues, she said, which originated before she was hired.

“I think this is yet another example of something that has kind of been allowed to go on for far too long in the district and that our administration has taken extremely seriously,” Watson-Harris said at the time.

The financial woes in DeKalb schools predate Watson-Harris. One of the more recent problems — that the district had lost its credit rating after failing to submit required audits — was remedied within five months after she started due, in part, to the interim superintendent who preceded her.

In the backlash over Watson-Harris’ firing, the division between board members has become a sticking point.

“I don’t think the situation is indicative of the system,” said Thad Mayfield, a former DeKalb school board member. “I think it is indicative of the problem that we have with board leadership right now.”


DeKalb County Public Schools

Number of students: 93,700

Georgia ranking: Third-largest school district

Number of employees: 15,500

Leadership: Interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley

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