In DeKalb school district, a revolving door of superintendents

The DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner speaks at a news conference on April 27, 2022. Turner led the recent vote to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

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The DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner speaks at a news conference on April 27, 2022. Turner led the recent vote to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris as superintendent. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

State, local officials denounce Board of Education for firing Cheryl Watson-Harris

The longest tenure of a DeKalb County School District superintendent in recent memory is the six years under Crawford Lewis — until he was fired and indicted on corruption charges in 2010.

The end of his reign kicked off a series of troubling events in the state’s third-largest district: Top school officials charged with crimes. Threats to its accreditation. School board members removed from office.

The district battled back from those issues, but struggles with stability at the top. The school board has hired four superintendents and three interims since Lewis. Tuesday’s unexpected 4-1 vote to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris happened when two members were absent.

“If you were a kindergartener that started in 2009 and were graduating this May, you would have had eight different superintendents that would have been in the seat during your 13 years,” said Brad Bryant, a former DeKalb school board member.

ExploreFormer DeKalb school superintendent says she was blindsided by firing

The backlash was immediate, from the governor’s office to the state Department of Education. Gov. Brian Kemp said he was “highly concerned” that politics influenced the decision and indicated his office was exploring possible action. Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal, removed two-thirds of the DeKalb board after it put the district’s accreditation at risk.

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods, who’d exchanged harsh letters with DeKalb’s school board chair before the firing, said the decision might prompt the state to withhold funds to help cover construction costs. Woods blamed the board, rather than the superintendent, for dilapidated facilities in the district in a public battle over poor conditions at Druid Hills High School.

“This is not a situation that I like to be involved in because I do respect local control,” Woods said. “But at this point in time, we’ve got to do what’s right for our kids.”

Republicans Kemp and Woods are running for reelection at a time in which the GOP nationally has seized upon education issues as a way to rally voters. Both were quick to speak out about the firing in DeKalb County, where about 83% of voters cast their ballots for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp laughs with state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller and others as he signs education bills on April 28, 2022, in Cumming, Georgia. Ahead of the signing, Kemp said he was "highly concerned" that the firing of the DeKalb County School District's superintendent was about politics. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Credit: Jeff Amy

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp laughs with state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller and others as he signs education bills on April 28, 2022, in Cumming, Georgia. Ahead of the signing, Kemp said he was "highly concerned" that the firing of the DeKalb County School District's superintendent was about politics. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Credit: Jeff Amy

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp laughs with state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller and others as he signs education bills on April 28, 2022, in Cumming, Georgia. Ahead of the signing, Kemp said he was "highly concerned" that the firing of the DeKalb County School District's superintendent was about politics. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Credit: Jeff Amy

Credit: Jeff Amy

The county of around 765,000 has grown 60% since 1980. But it struggles with a racial divide that plays out in politics and in schools. The majority Black residents are concentrated in the southern portion of the county, while white residents are largely in the northern areas.

About 59% of the district’s more than 93,000 students are Black.

Board member Joyce Morley, who voted to fire Watson-Harris, said the first thing needed now is to “clean up the mess.” She said the board needs to “assess what’s wrong and right and then look at how you move forward.”

That may not be easy. Superintendent turnover has reached “astronomical” rates across the country, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association.

Normally, 10% to 12% of the 500 largest U.S. school districts hire a new superintendent in a given year, he said. Over the last year that figure was at 37%.

“Given the turnover you have in your county you’re not going to get quality, high-level superintendents necessarily being interested in the job,” he said.

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DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony on July 1, 2020, at the school’s district headquarters in Stone Mountain. She was fired from the position on Tuesday. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony on July 1, 2020, at the school’s district headquarters in Stone Mountain. She was fired from the position on Tuesday. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

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DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris speaks at her installment ceremony on July 1, 2020, at the school’s district headquarters in Stone Mountain. She was fired from the position on Tuesday. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

DeKalb’s turnover of superintendents in the past decade is on par with Fulton County Schools, but surpasses other metro Atlanta districts. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, last year hired its first new superintendent in 25 years.

“Given the kind of turnover we’ve seen, I think it’s important for DeKalb to get that home run with the next candidate,” said Ernest Brown, who has had four children attend DeKalb schools. He’s hoping for someone who “can really put down roots in that particular job and serve five, six, seven years.”

Watson-Harris was in the role for less than two years. She had never led a school district, though was formerly first deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education.

Her first months on the job were spent helping the district pivot to online learning as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. But more recently, she apologized for “upsetting and questionable job” descriptions sent to 7,000 employees. And she and the school board were at odds over the repairs needed at Druid Hills High, an issue that escalated after students posted a video showing electrical hazards and plumbing issues, and water-damaged ceilings and walls.

The Georgia School Superintendent publicly chastised the school board for the problems. Board Chair Vicki Turner, in turn, publicly blamed Watson-Harris. A few hours later, Watson-Harris was terminated. She says she was blindsided by the decision.

“It’s gonna be very hard to get somebody to come in if they know that the DeKalb County school board does this to their employee,” said Deborah Jones, president of the DeKalb Organization of Educators.

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Vasanne Tinsley, interim superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, speaks to the news media on April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

Vasanne Tinsley, interim superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, speaks to the news media on April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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Vasanne Tinsley, interim superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, speaks to the news media on April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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

A report about a routine accreditation review posted recently by the district urged the school board to “set aside personal agendas and focus their efforts on governing together in the best interest of the school system.”

Now, in the aftermath of the firing, mayors from all 12 of DeKalb’s cities are echoing that call.

“The board’s actions over the last few days indicate a need for new policies and procedures to address governance of the DeKalb School District,” they said in a statement.

The board tapped Vasanne Tinsley to serve as interim superintendent. She’s a former deputy superintendent who retired from the district after more than 20 years.

At a news conference, Tinsley sidestepped the firing drama. Her comments focused on students and the end of school, which is May 20.

“What we need to do is make sure we get to the finish line with the students that we have for this school year and begin building for the upcoming school year,” she said.

Reporters Greg Bluestein, Ty Tagami and Tyler Estep contributed to this article.


The story so far

The DeKalb County Board of Education voted 4-1 to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris from her role as superintendent on Tuesday. Two board members who missed the vote criticized the decision. The board immediately named an interim — Vasanne Tinsley— who’d been a deputy superintendent before retiring.

Watson-Harris, who had served less than two years, said she was caught unaware by the decision, which has been widely denounced by the Georgia School Superintendent, mayors in the DeKalb Municipal Association and educators. While Gov. Brian Kemp said he was “highly concerned” about what happened, the DeKalb GOP applauded the decision.