DeKalb mayors join chorus decrying school district ‘chaos’

07/23/2021 — Decatur, Georgia —  DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris participates in a round table discussion during a visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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07/23/2021 — Decatur, Georgia — DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris participates in a round table discussion during a visit to Kelley Lake Elementary School in Decatur, Friday, July 23, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

DeKalb Municipal Association calls for ‘serious changes’

Leaders from all 12 DeKalb cities have joined the chorus of officials decrying the “chaos” wrought by the surprise firing of the county schools superintendent.

In a statement distributed via email late Thursday night, the DeKalb Municipal Association wrote that the school board’s decision to dismiss Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris “could jeopardize the future outcomes for DeKalb students” and indicates “a need for new policies and procedures to address the governance of the DeKalb School District.”

“We are ready to work with the DeKalb legislative delegation to craft legislation which will protect DCSD students and educators,” the group wrote. “Serious changes are needed to prevent the chaos that seems to occur every few years in the DCSD.”

The letter was signed by the mayors or de facto mayors from each of DeKalb’s dozen municipalities. (Stonecrest Mayor Pro Tem George Turner signed the letter; he is currently the city’s highest ranking elected official following the resignation of former mayor Jason Lary.)

A steadily growing crowd of public officials — including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and state School Superintendent Richard Woods — have raised concerns or outright condemned the school board’s actions since four members voted to terminate Watson-Harris during a Tuesday night meeting.

On Wednesday, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond dedicated a significant chunk of his state of the county address to imploring school leaders to stop letting politics interfere with what’s best for local children.

By Friday, at least four DeKalb County commissioners had revoked their support for the reelection of school board vice chair Diijon DaCosta, or threatened to do so.

Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson formally rescinded her existing endorsement for DaCosta, who is facing two challengers on the May 24 ballot. So did Commissioner Steve Bradshaw. Commissioner Ted Terry said he’s supported DaCosta in the past and had planned to endorse him again, but would no longer be doing so.

ExploreIn DeKalb school district, revolving door of superintendents a constant

And Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson said she was still looking for a direct explanation for Watson-Harris’ firing.

“Mrs. Watson-Harris has served as superintendent less than two years, so I do not believe she has had adequate time to make meaningful changes, as the DCSD has been plagued with a plethora of systemic issues that far predate her presence,” Cochran-Johnson wrote in a text message to the AJC.

“Independent of a justification for firing Mrs. Watson-Harris, I too must withdraw my endorsement of Mr. DaCosta, as independent of an explanation for such drastic actions I cannot support the release of our superintendent.”

Watson-Harris’ dismissal came amid an uproar over conditions at Druid Hills High School, though school board members have not directly attributed their vote to that situation and have otherwise been vague about their rationale.

Board chair Vickie Turner said during a Wednesday news conference that “the challenges that we have dealt with in our school district were being ignored in some ways.”

The municipal association, meanwhile, said it had established a new education committee comprised of local mayors and councilmembers. Its goal will be to “improve outcomes for DeKalb students.”

“The current situation is a symptom of a larger ongoing problem with DeKalb schools,” the group’s statement said. “In the past, the focus has been on acute issues while ignoring the chronic challengers both in governance and management. It is time to address both, and the DeKalb Municipal Association stands ready to assist.”