The DeKalb school board announced Horton as its sole superintendent finalist last week, and critics both locally and nationally began weighing in immediately. Some wanted to see interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley stay in the role. Others wondered whether he had the experience to lead a district the size of DeKalb. Horton is currently superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in Illinois, which has 6,500 students and no high schools.
Horton directly responded to some of the biggest questions about his history when prompted by the audience of several dozen people at the Chamblee High auditorium. Though the event was billed as a town hall, some attendees were initially upset that the questions were pre-selected.
Regarding a lawsuit accusing him of discriminating against white people, Horton said it was based on things that happened prior to his arrival in the Illinois district.
On a question about whether he gave students of color priority in returning to the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic, Horton said his comments were taken out of context. He said the recommendation, taken from a task force, was to bring back students in marginalized groups — English language learners, special education students and students who receive free and reduced lunch — first. His statement was that unfortunately the bulk of students in those categories are Black and brown, he said.
And when someone asked whether it was true that Horton called people who questioned the decision to send marginalized students back to in-person schooling first “white supremacists,” he said that it was a mistake he made during a heated time — shortly after the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. He apologized and set up a system for him and his administrators to better respond when tensions are high, he said.
These questions came up only after district officials tried to end the event around 7 p.m., with Horton having only answered questions from Chamblee High Principal Gail Barnes that had been submitted online related to the district’s priority areas such as academics, staffing and facilities maintenance. Members of the audience stood up and asked to speak.
Parent and former Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis was the first to ask an unscripted question. After the event, he said he felt like some of his concerns were addressed, while others remain.
“He was better than I thought he was going to be,” he said.
Throughout the event, Horton repeatedly highlighted the value of community input, suggesting the creation of a number of advisory committees for different interest groups. He also mentioned hosting regular lunches where members of the district’s leadership team can hear from school officials.
He emphasized ensuring that students can be successful academically by starting with an audit of the curriculum that’s being used, and going from there. He stressed the importance of building a pipeline of teachers and leaders within the district, referencing residency programs he created in his past three districts. And he said he wants to be more proactive about informing the community about how the district is spending money.
“I want to make sure that academics and our social emotional priorities elevate to levels where we can be seen as a model district in this country,” Horton said. “I believe in my bones that the tenets to do that exist in this community.”
The board “remains confident that it has made an exceptional, well-informed decision” in selecting Horton as the sole finalist, board members Allyson Gevertz and Anna Hill said in Facebook posts over the past week.
Horton will participate in two more town hall meetings this week. Each meeting is open to the general public to attend in person, and each meeting will be livestreamed. Each two-hour meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at the following locations:
- Thursday, April 13: McNair Middle School (2190 Wallingford Drive, Decatur)
- Friday, April 14: Auditorium at district office (1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd., Stone Mountain)