Kemp ‘concerned’ DeKalb superintendent’s firing is about politics

DeKalb County School Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris helps to serve lunch during an appreciation lunch for the transportation employees at the East DeKalb Campus Thursday, June 24, 2021. She was fired from her job on April 26, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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DeKalb County School Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris helps to serve lunch during an appreciation lunch for the transportation employees at the East DeKalb Campus Thursday, June 24, 2021. She was fired from her job on April 26, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods on Wednesday told the DeKalb County Board of Education that the firing of Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent was “a step backward.”

Earlier this week, Woods blasted the board for its handling of deteriorating conditions at Druid Hills High School. In response, Board Chair Vickie Turner blamed Watson-Harris for the problems just hours before her firing late Tuesday.

“Instead of moving deliberately and decisively in line with my recommendations, the board chose to largely meet this moment with dysfunction and deflection,” Woods stated in his latest letter. He had wanted the governance team to “empower” Watson-Harris.

Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement that his office will remain in close contact with the state Department of Education “to determine what further action is needed.”

“I am highly concerned that these serious issues in DeKalb County could be a result of a school system choosing politics over students, families, and educators,” Kemp said.

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DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie Turner, left, and Vasanne Tinsley, interim superintendent, held a news conference on April 27, 2022. A day earlier the board had fired Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie Turner, left, and Vasanne Tinsley, interim superintendent, held a news conference on April 27, 2022. A day earlier the board had fired Cheryl Watson-Harris as 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, left, and Vasanne Tinsley, interim superintendent, held a news conference on April 27, 2022. A day earlier the board had fired 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

ExploreFormer DeKalb school superintendent says she was blindsided by firing

Watson-Harris said she was caught unaware by board’s decision to terminate her during a virtual meeting.

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

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.”

Watson-Harris had led Georgia’s third-largest school district and its more than 93,000 students for less than two years. She had never led a school district before coming to DeKalb, but served as the first deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education.

The board’s 4-1 vote was approved by Turner, Diijon DaCosta, Anna Hill and Joyce Morley. Deirdre Pierce was the lone no vote. Two board members, Allyson Gevertz and Marshall Orson, were absent.

“The challenges that we have dealt with in our school district were being ignored in some ways,” Turner said at a news conference Wednesday, where she was joined by DaCosta and Hill. “We just decided maybe this is the best time to part ways and move on.”

Orson said he didn’t know the Tuesday termination vote had been planned and would not have supported the action.

“There was a group on the Board of Education that decided they no longer wanted Cheryl Watson-Harris to be superintendent of DeKalb County,” he said in an interview with the AJC. “They just needed to figure out when they were going to take a step to remove her.”

Gevertz said the firing showed the board’s “ineptitude” and failed to ensure student success.

“The weakness in DeKalb County Schools is the DeKalb County School Board,” Gevertz said in a statement. “I keep pondering what it will be like if I continue to serve on a Board where progress is stifled, adult egos prevail and students are forgotten.”

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DeKalb County Interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley (left), School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner and board members Diijon DaCosta and Anna Hill speak at a news conference on April 27, 2022. A day earlier the school board terminated Cheryl Watson-Harris, who had been the district's superintendent for nearly two years. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

DeKalb County Interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley (left), School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner and board members Diijon DaCosta and Anna Hill speak at a news conference on April 27, 2022. A day earlier the school board terminated Cheryl Watson-Harris, who had been the district's superintendent for nearly two years. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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DeKalb County Interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley (left), School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner and board members Diijon DaCosta and Anna Hill speak at a news conference on April 27, 2022. A day earlier the school board terminated Cheryl Watson-Harris, who had been the district's superintendent for nearly two years. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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

ExploreWho is Vasanne Tinsley, interim DeKalb County school superintendent?

Earlier this month, the board hastily voted to change the district’s focus for facility maintenance, upending the plans Watson-Harris and her staff had proposed for updating Druid Hills High School.

Students have been working for weeks to bring awareness to water damage, electrical problems and plumbing issues at the aging school. The board twice opted not to approve a $60 million modernization of the school per the district’s master plan. A video showcasing problems at the school caught the attention of the state Department of Education, which sent a facilities team to evaluate the campus.

Orson doesn’t believe the dispute over the school was the reason Watson-Harris was fired. He said the school is ultimately the board’s responsibility — and only the latest point of tension between the board and superintendent.

“If you look at our meetings, you will see time and again the board has rejected a number of the items that the superintendent has brought to us,” he said.

Ken Schroeder, one of the parents leading efforts to improve conditions at Druid Hills High, said the “lack of transparency” over the firing was disturbing.

“It feels premeditated, like they wanted to get rid of the superintendent, and then Druid Hills comes up and, ‘Oh, this might be our chance,’” he said.

ExploreDeKalb school board favors districtwide fixes over Druid Hills repairs

State Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat representing the DeKalb area, said in a letter to state officials, that the firing gives “the perception of a system quickly spinning into turmoil.” She called on Woods and Gov. Brian Kemp to investigate the school board’s actions.

Woods responded on Wednesday that he shares Parent’s concerns. He plans to share the information with the state attorney’s general office.

Reaction to the ousting of Watson-Harris has been mixed. Statements from the Organization of DeKalb Educators and the DeKalb GOP applaud the decision. But the DeKalb NAACP said that frequently changing superintendents isn’t good for students.

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The DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner announces Dr. Vasanne Tinsley as interim superintendent following the DeKalb State of the County Address on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

The DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner announces Dr. Vasanne Tinsley as interim superintendent following the DeKalb State of the County Address on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

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The DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner announces Dr. Vasanne Tinsley as interim superintendent following the DeKalb State of the County Address on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

DeKalb CEO and former superintendent Michael Thurmond spent much of his annual state of the county address on Wednesday pleading for sanity in the schools. As the school system’s leader from 2013 to 2015, he’s credited with getting the district’s finances in shape and helping it stave off the threat of losing accreditation.

“I didn’t go through all that, this county didn’t go through all that, to go back down that road again. It makes no sense,” he said. “It ain’t about the superintendent, it ain’t about the school board, it ain’t about the school board chair. It’s about all of those 100,000 children.”

Vasanne Tinsley was tapped by the school to serve as the interim superintendent. She retired from her role as deputy superintendent of student support and intervention in 2020.

Reporters Greg Bluestein, Tyler Estep and Josh Reyes contributed to this report.


DeKalb County school superintendents

Vasanne Tinsley (interim): 2022-

Cheryl Watson-Harris 2020-2022

Ramona Tyson (interim): 2019-2020

Steve Green: 2015-2019

Michael Thurmond: 2013-2015

Cheryl Atkinson: 2011-2013

Ramona Tyson (interim): 2010-2011

Crawford Lewis: 2004-2010

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