Devon Horton starts as DeKalb’s superintendent amid hope and skepticism

Devon Horton takes the oath of office at the DeKalb County Superior Courthouse in Decatur on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Members of his family, including his wife Christiane Horton, were in attendance at the private ceremony. Horton begins working as the superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on July 1. (Photo courtesy DeKalb County School District)

Credit: Photo provided by DeKalb County School District

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Devon Horton takes the oath of office at the DeKalb County Superior Courthouse in Decatur on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Members of his family, including his wife Christiane Horton, were in attendance at the private ceremony. Horton begins working as the superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on July 1. (Photo courtesy DeKalb County School District)

Credit: Photo provided by DeKalb County School District

Credit: Photo provided by DeKalb County School District

Devon Horton took the oath of office Thursday as the superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, marking a new chapter for the state’s third-largest school system.

“I am thrilled to embark on this journey,” Horton said in a news release from the district.

He faces the challenge of leading a community suspicious of its leaders. Persistent problems with facilities and academic achievement and historical missteps by school boards, in addition to Horton’s own history, have contributed to skepticism about the board’s pick for superintendent. Horton was hired in 2020 as superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 just outside of Chicago. It has 6,500 students and no high schools, compared to DeKalb’s 93,000 students.

In between the time Horton’s selection was announced and the board officially hired him, parents, retired educators and other community members sent the district close to two dozen emails questioning how he was selected, according to messages obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via an open records request.

“Would you be able to share with the public general diversity of the pool of candidates that were considered?” one constituent asked. “Transparency on this is important and sets a precedent for other school districts modeling after DeKalb.”

Someone else stated that naming a single finalist “leads me to question whether there were enough qualified and experienced candidates in the applicant pool … and that the district may be rushing to fill the leadership void with any (sic) candidate rather than the best (sic) candidate.”

From another email: “I’m at a loss for words how this is the ONLY (sic) option you are presenting given the recent failures of leadership in our school system.”

Prior to selecting a finalist, the board solicited input about what type of candidate the community would like to see hired. But the school board has not shared information about the 26 completed applications it received for the position. The board is allowed to meet in private to discuss personnel matters, and Georgia law states that applications need only be made public for those who are announced as finalists. The rules are intended to protect the privacy of those who apply but aren’t hired. The board could have announced up to three finalists. DeKalb, like many metro districts, announced one.

The AJC submitted open records requests to the school district and the Georgia School Boards Association, which was hired to facilitate the search, for documents showing how each of the applicants was evaluated. Both entities denied the requests, citing a state statute that exempts evaluations from disclosure.

Horton and the school board’s job will include building confidence in their ability to lead after the criticism about the search process and skepticism seeded in the lack of stability in recent years in DeKalb’s stewardship. Horton will be DeKalb’s ninth superintendent since 2010.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Horton has said he doesn’t plan to come in and immediately begin changing things. His focus is on “elevating excellence,” he said in a news release Thursday, and creating innovative educational experiences.

“We cannot do this alone. We’ll ramp up our efforts to establish meaningful collaborations with our students, families and community partners,” he stated. “Together, we will proudly graduate scholars who are well-prepared to pursue their versions of the American Dream.”

Horton has been involved in several meetings in recent days to prepare for his new job. Now that he’s been hired, the community and school board must support Horton, said Lee May, a pastor in DeKalb and former interim chief executive officer of the county government.

“The decision’s been made, whether you like the process or not,” he said. “Now we have to all work together — and I emphasize work together — to make sure that our school district and the students are well-served by his leadership.”

At a school board meeting to approve Horton’s contract, Vice Chair Deirdre Pierce commended the board for being “methodical” about the superintendent search process.

“We went through quite a bit during this process,” she said. “We endured what I like to call a great deal of undue scrutiny.”

That scrutiny reached a peak in the two weeks before Horton was hired. At town hall meetings, the then-finalist was grilled about decisions he made in his current district related to student equity, about accusations of fiscal mismanagement and about whether his experience leading a small Illinois district would translate to a district as large as DeKalb.

School board chair Diijon DaCosta said in May that Horton has “overwhelming support from the collective body of this board of education.”

That support will be vital to not just Horton’s success, but the district’s, May told the AJC.

“We need (Horton) to win,” he said. “We need him to be successful. If he wins, it means our students are successful.”


Devon Horton

Hometown: Chicago

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education, Jackson State University. Master’s degree in educational leadership, Chicago State University. Doctoral degree in educational leadership from Chicago State University.

Career: Superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 since July 2020. Previously chief of schools for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. He’s worked in the Chicago and East St. Louis school districts.

Sources: DeKalb County School District, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, The Evanston Roundtable

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