Opinion: DeKalb’s choice for school chief ignites backlash

DeKalb superintendent finalist Devon Horton speaks to reporters after a public town hall meeting at Chamblee High School in Chamblee on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

DeKalb superintendent finalist Devon Horton speaks to reporters after a public town hall meeting at Chamblee High School in Chamblee on Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

The search for a new superintendent is not going well in DeKalb County, where the school board’s actions even concern the state school chief.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods told the DeKalb County School District that he would prefer that the district keep its interim superintendent for now. In three decades of writing about education, I can’t recall a state school superintendent wading into a local debate over a school chief.

“In her brief tenure as interim superintendent, Dr. Vasanne Tinsley has been responsive and has produced results for DeKalb County Schools,” Woods wrote in a letter to the DeKalb board obtained last week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Though the selection of a superintendent falls within your purview as the local board of education, I respectfully urge you to pause the selection process and afford Dr. Tinsley additional time to get the district on solid footing.”

If a state superintendent were going to step into the fray, DeKalb, Georgia’s third-largest school district, is a likely place for it to occur. Three factors draw inordinate attention to political dramas in DeKalb Schools.

First, the 92,000-student district is in the metro area, where there is lots of news coverage. Other school districts in Georgia hire school chiefs weighted down with troubling baggage. But there are few newspapers or TV stations watching the process.

Second, DeKalb sheds superintendents with disturbing frequency. The DeKalb board chose Devon Horton after a seven-month search to replace Cheryl Watson-Harris, hired in 2020 from the New York City Department of Education and fired less than two years later. The board enticed Tinsley out of retirement to lead the district as interim. Counting interims, Horton would be the district’s ninth superintendent in 13 years.

Third, the parent base in DeKalb springs into action quickly and forcefully when roused. These are parents who will delve deeply into a candidate’s achievements and failures from current and former districts. Horton’s background gives these parents some legitimate grounds for concern.

As reported by the AJC’s DeKalb schools reporter Cassidy Alexander: Horton filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and again in 2015. Records show he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Horton now leads the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in Illinois, which has 6,500 students and no high schools. As Alexander reported, DeKalb is 14 times the size of Horton’s current district.

Along with State Superintendent Woods, others want Tinsley to stay put, including school board member Joyce Morley, who told the AJC, “Tinsley was in the top five ... It came down to him or her.”

The DeKalb-based Georgia Federation of Teachers has also questioned Horton’s selection, asking the school board members to allow “more top candidates to be seen and heard” in an email last week. “Since our recent 15-year history is so checkered, our taxes are constantly rising, and the state has a weapon to take over school districts, I strongly caution this board per its selection and hiring of this candidate,” wrote federation President Verdaillia Turner.

On her Facebook page, school board member Allyson Gevertz defended the board’s choice of Horton, writing, “We understand there may be concerns regarding Dr. Horton coming to the DeKalb County School District from a smaller school system ... Dr. Horton served as Chief of Schools in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, which at approximately 101,000 students, is larger than DCSD and its 92,0000 students. These professional experiences provide a unique perspective on how to navigate the complexities of varied school populations.”

Eight community members addressed the school board Monday night about the superintendent search and the need for consistency. Lance Hammonds, president of the NAACP DeKalb branch, told the board that DeKalb must have a visionary leader who will stay in the role long enough to make real change.

“We are asking you to stop the revolving door of superintendents,” said Hammonds. “Get it right this time. If, in a couple of years, we are here again looking for another superintendent, we must hold each and every one of you accountable for the decisions you make that fail our students. This is a moment in time when you must have the courage to determine what is best for our children and do it.”