Opinion: In firing school chief, DeKalb board squanders moment

Ouster continues revolving door of leaders in Georgia’s third largest school district
DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony in July, 2020. She was fired from her job on April 26, 2022. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)



DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony in July, 2020. She was fired from her job on April 26, 2022. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

At a time when DeKalb students need stability and wise spending of $313.2 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid, the school board parted ways with Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris over what it called a deteriorating relationship and loss of confidence in her leadership.

The surprising dismissal plays into the district’s reputation for persistent and politically driven turnover at the top. Parents flocked to the district’s Facebook page in the hundreds to decry the board’s decision and the consequences to their children’s education. A typical sentiment: “We will make no progress as a school system until we can hire and keep a superintendent.”

The school board’s stealth vote prompted concern and condemnation from state legislators, the DeKalb NAACP and the Georgia Department of Education. Superintendent Richard Woods said Wednesday in a letter that the board’s actions erode not only the public’s trust “but my trust in your seriousness to address the issues facing DeKalb County Schools.” Later in the day, Gov. Brian Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “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.”

Since 2010, DeKalb has churned through six superintendents. The board announced the selection of Watson-Harris in June of 2020. She’d been second-in-command in the New York City Department of Education.

Despite never having led a school system, Watson-Harris was awarded an annual salary of $325,000. A New York native, Watson-Harris took the wheel that summer, navigating DeKalb through a deadly pandemic and conflicting data on the risks of the virus to children in classrooms. She had to balance parents demanding a return to in-person learning and a school board opposed to it.

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.