Her predecessor Steven Green led DeKalb for four years before resigning in 2019 in frustration over mounting tensions with the school board. Green came to the state’s third largest school district eager to focus on academic improvement but confronted longstanding and festering problems in human resources, maintenance, budget and communications.
Those problems seem entrenched. For example, it should not take months to fix leaks in school buildings but parents and staff across DeKalb have been complaining about upkeep and maintenance for decades. The appalling conditions of Druid Hills High School that went viral earlier this month in student video are an example of delayed maintenance.
But it’s not clear the video led to Watson-Harris’ firing. Watson-Harris told the AJC she was blindsided by her termination. Board member Marshall Orson said, “There was no rationale for this decision.” There were earlier indications board members were losing faith, as suggested by a constraint on her ability to enter into contracts above $50,000 without their approval.
The timing is terrible. As with many districts that shifted to remote learning during the pandemic, DeKalb has been concentrating on academic acceleration. In its favor, DeKalb hasn’t been sidetracked by the political machinations around critical race theory or book bans, one of the few metro Atlanta districts spared such theatrics. And it continues to have an involved parent base that generally agrees with the district’s academic mission. But the board and its abrupt decision have now seeded mistrust in those parents over whether it is acting in the best interest of the district and students.
Vasanne Tinsley, retired DeKalb deputy superintendent for student support and intervention, will return as interim superintendent.
That the board had a retired former DeKalb administrator waiting in the wings to immediately designate as interim Tuesday speaks to the planning that went into this clandestine plotting. From my experience covering government, when elected officials go to these lengths to subvert the public and prevent questions, it’s because they know their actions will be divisive and damaging.
I understand the authority of a Georgia school board to hire and fire a superintendent. But I also know what good governance looks like.
This isn’t it.