DeKalb superintendent finalist a polarizing figure in current district

Devon Horton is the sole finalist to become the next superintendent of DeKalb County's school system. (Courtesy of DeKalb County School District)

Credit: DeKalb County School District

Credit: DeKalb County School District

Devon Horton is the sole finalist to become the next superintendent of DeKalb County's school system. (Courtesy of DeKalb County School District)

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the DeKalb County school board’s sole superintendent finalist.

Devon Horton is either a leader in equity and antiracism — or he hasn’t done anything to change the lives of Black students in Evanston, Illinois. He increased his district’s savings — but has been accused of misusing district funds. He’s got great ideas — or he doesn’t follow through with key initiatives.

Even the DeKalb school board was split on Horton, board member Joyce Morley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. In closed-door sessions, she said, board members debated between Horton and interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley for the job. Now, DeKalb residents are wondering whether Horton has what it takes to lead a district 14 times larger than the one he works in now.

The AJC called and emailed Horton but did not receive a response. DeKalb board chair Diijon DaCosta said he can’t comment on the board’s decision making, but Horton will be able to speak for himself starting Wednesday at the first of three town hall meetings open to the public.

“There’s things that I’ve seen that were positive, things that I have seen that Dr. Horton will be able to address,” he said. “So I’m just continuing to wait ... to allow the public to get that chance.”

Equity in action

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has about 6,500 students. Horton quickly made waves when he was hired in 2020 with the decision to allow students from marginalized groups to return to in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic before other students. That summer, he began fielding threats, harassment and vandalism, police reports show.

Horton has said he established policies and procedures in the district to continue the work of helping marginalized students achieve more.

“He was able to take our mission and vision around advancing equity and embedded it into the school system,” said Sergio Hernandez, the school board chair in District 65.

But Marlon Millner, whose child attends Haven Middle School, said Horton was nowhere to be found when Black parents asked the district for help addressing violence in the school.

“Do you want equity talking points, or do you want real experience?” he said. “In terms of what can Black students benefit from right now, I have not seen the difference at one of the worst schools in the district.”

Financial concerns

Horton listed increasing the district’s fund balance by about $15 million as one of his biggest accomplishments.

But critics note Horton filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and again in 2015. Both times, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, public records show.

In 2013, he owed the city of Chicago more than $60,000 in unpaid fines related to property he owned, a local news outlet reported.

Hernandez said the school board knew about the bankruptcies, but the board wasn’t interested in Horton’s personal life. DaCosta said the board isn’t legally allowed to consider personal bankruptcies in hiring decisions.

As superintendent of the district, people Horton was in business with were awarded no-bid contracts for services related to athletics, school culture and climate and facilities totaling more than $150,000, a parent in the district found via public records requests and posted online last month. Horton formed an LLC with four individuals shortly after becoming superintendent, but told the board that he never did any work with the LLC, so it was a non-issue, Hernandez said. The LLC had been dissolved by the time the contracts were awarded, the district has said.

“Everything that the media, the public has perceived has been consulted with our attorneys,” DaCosta said. “And as far as we know at this point, those are just allegations.”

Big ideas

Horton brought “some really great ideas” to the Evanston school district, Hernandez said. Horton’s critics don’t disagree.

Horton has touted a teacher residency program to help develop teachers. The program, a nearly $1 million investment funded largely by grants, developed 13 teachers in its first year, he stated. But an article in Education Week details confusion between the district and the colleges they’re working with. An education policy expert told the publication it’s too soon to know if the program is a success.

Horton said in his application that he improved reading and math outcomes for Black and Hispanic students by opening Academic Skills Centers. He did so, according to his resume, by eliminating reading interventionists at a time when districts are renewing their focus on reading. District 65 then lowered its bar for identifying students as college-ready — a move district officials said was meant to align with state standards.

John Martin, a parent of two who recently lost a bid for the District 65 school board, said that’s why officials from a nearby high school recently complained that the students coming to them were not prepared academically.

State data shows that gaps between Black and white students in District 65 persisted between 2021-2022. Hernandez said a lot of what Horton did for District 65 is still in the “implementation phase.” It takes a couple of years to see if strategies are having sustained impact.

For Martin, that’s the problem.

“He’s full of being able to say the right words, but the implementation falls short every time,” he said. “Be wary.”