Former DeKalb school superintendent says she was blindsided by firing

DeKalb County School Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris talks to employees during an appreciation lunch for the transportation employees at the East DeKalb Campus on June 24, 2021. The Board of Education terminated her contract on April 26, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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DeKalb County School Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris talks to employees during an appreciation lunch for the transportation employees at the East DeKalb Campus on June 24, 2021. The Board of Education terminated her contract on April 26, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Cheryl Watson-Harris said she was caught unaware by the DeKalb County Board of Education’s decision Tuesday to fire her from her role as superintendent.

“I was blindsided,” she said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hours after the decision. “I was unaware that my contract for employment would be discussed. … I was not notified and it was not identified on the meeting notice.”

Watson-Harris led Georgia’s third-largest school district and its more than 93,000 students for less than two years. The board approved a separation agreement, effective immediately. No reason was offered.

ExploreDeKalb County school board fires Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris

The board’s 4-1 vote to fire Watson-Harris happened during a virtual meeting. Vicki Turner, Diijon DaCosta, Anna Hill and Joyce Morley voted in favor of termination. Deirdre Pierce was the lone no vote. Two board members, Allyson Gevertz and Marshall Orson, were absent.

Orson said in a social media post that he missed the vote because the meeting started “almost two hours” past the time originally announced.

“I would have voted against this action,” he said. “This action was taken with no notice to me and was contrary to earlier board discussions regarding the status of the superintendent.”

He said the decision was “clearly planned action taken by a subgroup” of board members. “There was no rationale for the decision,” he added.

After the vote, the board released a statement that said its relationship with Watson-Harris had been “deteriorating for some time to the point the association became irreconcilable.”

“The Board lost confidence in Mrs. Watson-Harris’ ability to provide the leadership the district needs in the face of significant challenges,” the statement said.

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DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, right, poses for a photo with DeKalb County School District board member Marshall Orson after her installment ceremony in 2020. On Tuesday, the board fired Watson-Harris. Orson wasn't present for the vote, but said later he would have opposed the measure. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, right, poses for a photo with DeKalb County School District board member Marshall Orson after her installment ceremony in 2020. On Tuesday, the board fired Watson-Harris. Orson wasn't present for the vote, but said later he would have opposed the measure. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

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DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, right, poses for a photo with DeKalb County School District board member Marshall Orson after her installment ceremony in 2020. On Tuesday, the board fired Watson-Harris. Orson wasn't present for the vote, but said later he would have opposed the measure. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Board Chair Vickie Turner did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier in the day, she released a letter blaming Watson-Harris for deteriorating conditions at the aging Druid Hills High School.

The school has been the center of a districtwide debate after students posted a video showing water-damaged ceilings and walls, electrical hazards and plumbing issues. That led the state Department of Education to send a facilities team to the school.

On Monday, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods chastised the DeKalb school board for its response to “egregious facility issues” at Druid Hills High School.

Earlier this month, the voted to change the district’s focus for facility maintenance, upending the larger plans Watson-Harris and her staff had proposed. It was the second time since February the board had opted against modernization of Druid Hills High.

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, center, walks with U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, right and DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, left, during a tour of Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur on July 23, 2021. Watson-Harris was terminated from her position on April 26, 2022. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, center, walks with U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, right and DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, left, during a tour of Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur on July 23, 2021. Watson-Harris was terminated from her position on April 26, 2022. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, center, walks with U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, right and DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, left, during a tour of Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur on July 23, 2021. Watson-Harris was terminated from her position on April 26, 2022. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Before coming to DeKalb, Watson-Harris had never led a school district. The board voted 6-1 to hire her in June 2020. Joyce Morley was the lone no vote.

“There’s no way in the world anyone on this board would be looking for a nanny and select one who’s never gone to nanny school,” Morley said of Watson-Harris’ lack of experience.

Watson-Harris was previously the first deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education. She was chosen to become DeKalb’s sixth superintendent in a decade.

She signed a three-year contract with the district for $325,000 a year plus monthly spending and car allowances, among other perks.

ExploreDeKalb school board favors districtwide fixes over Druid Hills repairs

Watson-Harris inherited a district still reeling from allegations of financial mismanagement. It had also recently lost its credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service after falling behind on its financial audits.

Early in her term, Watson-Harris faced backlash as the district maintained strict mask mandates and remained virtual longer than many other school systems well into the pandemic.

More recently, she issued a public apology for “upsetting and questionable” job descriptions sent to about 7,000 employees with their contracts for the 2022-2023 school year. The contracts included a list of 10 “performance factors” such as “ignore irrelevant sights” and “maintain composure” when dealing with difficult people.

At public meetings in recent months, board members have frequently grilled Watson-Harris’ team on the use of district funds.

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Vasanne Tinsley was appointed interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on April 26, 2022.

Credit: Courtesy

Vasanne Tinsley was appointed interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on April 26, 2022.

Credit: Courtesy

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Vasanne Tinsley was appointed interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School District on April 26, 2022.

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

Her official installation in July 2020 was a scaled-down event due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m hoping in me you will find not only a superintendent but a friend and someone that you know will work side-by-side with you to make DeKalb the No. 1 choice for all families here,” Watson-Harris said at the time.

After Tuesday’s firing, Vasanne Tinsley was named interim superintendent. She was the district’s deputy superintendent of student support and intervention before retiring in 2020.

“The Board expects Dr. Tinsley to be the unifying leader the community currently needs,” a news release said.

ExploreWho is Vasanne Tinsley, interim DeKalb County school superintendent?

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