Henry schools superintendent named finalist for same job in Cherokee County

Henry County Schools Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis poses at Dutchtown High School in Hampton on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick / AJC file photo)

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

Henry County Schools Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis poses at Dutchtown High School in Hampton on Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick / AJC file photo)

Less than two months after agreeing to a contract extension with Henry County Schools, Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis said she is leaving the 43,000-student district to become head of the slightly smaller Cherokee County school system.

In a letter to parents, staff and the Henry community on Wednesday, Davis said she is the sole finalist for Cherokee’s superintendent job and that she would help to ensure that the transition to new leadership in Henry Schools would be smooth.

“I have immense confidence in the team and leadership here in Henry County and in the ambitious direction set by our board of education,” Davis said in the statement. “I am confident that the work we have begun will be elevated to new levels and continue to climb.”

The 42,000-student Cherokee school system said in a Wednesday press release that she is their pick and that a vote to confirm her as superintendent will be taken Feb. 15. Cherokee Superintendent Brian Hightower has announced he is retiring at the end of May.

The news comes two months after Davis, who has been Henry superintendent since November 2017, informed residents that the school system had been hacked by “a criminal operation operating outside the United States.” The district has yet to report whether hackers made a ransomware demand.

The district took its internet offline on Nov. 9, which forced staff — including teachers, principals and administrators — to pull out analog tools for classrooms, such as overhead projectors, calculators and paper and pen.

“Our community is forever indebted to Dr. Davis for her contributions to ensuring a high-quality, world-class education for every student in Henry County,” Henry Board of Education Chairwoman Sophe Pope said. “Seven years is an incredible commitment for a superintendent. Over that time, she has built an extremely strong foundation, and I am confident that we will find the right leader to continue our pursuit of exceptional in Henry County Schools.”

Henry schools Vice Chairwoman Annette Edwards echoed her colleague. “I wish her well and much success in her new role as the Cherokee County superintendent.”

In early December, the board approved a new three-year contract with Davis at an annual salary of $350,000. It was unclear if she would have to return any of the funds she has received in the contract or how much Cherokee is offering to pay her.

Stockbridge City Councilman Elton Alexander said he was surprised by the announcement, especially since Davis had delivered a presentation on Henry Schools’ progress during Monday’s council meeting.

“I’ve been very supportive of her tenure and I’m honestly shocked that this is where we are,” said Alexander, who called the move lateral, which added to his surprise. “There was no indication that she was about to leave.”

Henry County Commission Chairwoman Carlotta Harrell noted Davis helped the district usher in its first STEM elementary school, which will be built in Stockbridge, and a new performing arts center on the community’s northside. She said Davis leaves the district on sound footing financially and with the wind at its back in test scores.

“I’m saddened but I’m happy,” she said of Davis’ departure. “She has put us on a good path. I am happy for her as she makes the transition.”

As is the case with many superintendents, Davis saw her share of challenges during her time leading the district. Decisions on whether to loosen or tighten mask mandates swung wildly during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and closing and opening schools bedeviled the district.

She also faced the district’s ever-increasing need for land to build new schools to keep up with the county’s growth, which is the second-fastest in metro Atlanta.

There have been highlights. In October, she was named one of four finalists for Georgia’s Superintendent of the Year. And under her leadership, Henry County Schools had an 11-point gain on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index and doubled the number of students enrolled in advanced coursework.

Before taking the job in Henry, Davis worked as an administrator in the Cobb and Gwinnett school districts. Davis began her professional career as a chemistry teacher in Virginia and a physical science teacher in Cobb County.

Leaving the district will have a personal impact, Davis said in her statement.

“Serving as your superintendent in Henry County for the better part of the last decade has been a profound honor,” she said. “This is the community my family has called home and the only school system my children have ever known. The decision to explore this new opportunity is one that I approach with a deep sense of responsibility and commitment.”