DeKalb CEO decries school district turmoil in state of county speech

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

During his annual state of the county address Wednesday, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond did tout his government’s recent accomplishments.

Thurmond talked about tackling COVID-19 and major infrastructure projects. He announced a plan to distribute $1 million in county funds to existing programs and nonprofits that aim to address the root causes of violent crime.

But the CEO spent the largest portion of his speech talking about something over which the county government has no control: in the wake of the local school board unexpectedly ousting Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris during a Tuesday night meeting, he pleaded for leaders to think of the children.

ExploreDeKalb County school board fires superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris

“It ain’t about the superintendent, it ain’t about the school board, it ain’t about the school board chair,” Thurmond said. “It’s about 100,000 children.”

Six full minutes of Thurmond’s 17-minute speech were devoted to the DeKalb County School District. Without using specific names, he accused school board members of playing politics.

“Enough,” he said once, then twice, pounding on the lectern.

The crowd applauded. Some stood.

Thurmond was superintendent of DeKalb County schools from 2013-15, taking on a situation so rocky that then-Gov. Nathan Deal had seen fit to replace six school board members, and the district’s accreditation status was very much in question.

Thurmond is credited with righting the DeKalb County School District’s financial situation, addressing mismanagement and bringing a sense of stability during his tenure.

He said Wednesday that the current situation with the district “feels a lot like that crap” he inherited.

In a surprise vote less than 24 hours before Thurmond’s speech, four members of DeKalb’s school board voted to fire Watson-Harris less than two years into her tenure. One other member voted no; two were absent from the meeting.

The move, which came amid uproar over poor conditions at one local school, sent shockwaves throughout the county and the state.

“I didn’t go through all that, this county didn’t go through all that, to go back down that road again. It makes no sense,” Thurmond told Wednesday’s crowd, which included the entirety of the school board and new interim superintendent Vasanne Tinsley.

ExploreOPINION: In firing school chief, DeKalb board squanders moment

Thurmond went on to say there are people who “want the destruction of the DeKalb County School district” — and urged leaders not to “be stupid enough to open up the door and invite them in.”

“I want you all to love [DeKalb County] enough to protect it,” Thurmond said. “I want you to love it enough to defend it. I want you to love it enough to put the ultimate outcome of the school district and this county ahead of your own political ambitions.”

Marshall Orson, one of the board members who missed Tuesday’s surprise vote but said he would’ve voted against firing Watson-Harris, said Thurmond’s speech was “right on the mark.”

School board chair Vicki Turner and the three other members who voted to terminate Watson-Harris’ contract — Diijon Decosta, Anna Hill and Joyce Morley — held their own impromptu press conference immediately following Thurmond’s speech.

Turner defended the decision.

“As I reflect on the message that shared today by CEO Thurmond, our focus is on our children,” she said. “It’s all about our children. And the changes that we have had to make are for the benefit of our children.”

Staff writer Josh Reyes contributed to this story.