New DeKalb superintendent focuses on oversight, support amid COVID-19

DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, center, is surrounded by her mother, Helen Watson-McDougall, and son, Luke Alexander, as she is installed as the new superintendent. From left to right, in relation to Cheryl Watson-Harris, Claudia Houston (aunt), Helen Watson-McDougall (mother), Cheryl Watson-Harris, Luke Alexander (son), Dr. Roger Harris (husband), Michelle Houston (cousin), and a friend Ms. Watson-McDougall. The DeKalb County School District installed its new superintendent, Cheryl Watson-Harris, at the school’s district headquarters in Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thursday, July 1, 2020. To limit the spread of Covid-19, the ceremony was live-streamed and the audience was limited. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
DeKalb County School District superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, center, is surrounded by her mother, Helen Watson-McDougall, and son, Luke Alexander, as she is installed as the new superintendent. From left to right, in relation to Cheryl Watson-Harris, Claudia Houston (aunt), Helen Watson-McDougall (mother), Cheryl Watson-Harris, Luke Alexander (son), Dr. Roger Harris (husband), Michelle Houston (cousin), and a friend Ms. Watson-McDougall. The DeKalb County School District installed its new superintendent, Cheryl Watson-Harris, at the school’s district headquarters in Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thursday, July 1, 2020. To limit the spread of Covid-19, the ceremony was live-streamed and the audience was limited. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Credit: REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA J

Cheryl Watson-Harris’ first 100 days as superintendent of DeKalb County Schools was unlike anything she could have expected.

The New York native was here only seven days before being confronted with the conflict between parents demanding a resumption of in-person learning and a school board dead set against it.

At about the same time, Watson-Harris had to present the board with a $1.1 billion budget delayed by the pandemic, and did so without a chief financial officer, chief operating officer, deputy superintendent, chief human resources officer or a chief information officer on her staff.

“I laugh now because they’re all filled and I have a team in place, but that was a challenge,” Watson-Harris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November.

DeKalb’s school board expresses confidence in Watson-Harris, even though she was their second choice ― hired a month after the board rescinded its offer to Rudy Crew, president of New York’s Medgar Evers College.

DeKalb school board-elect member Anna Hill called Watson-Harris “a wonderful asset” who is good at communicating with the community.

Watson-Harris “was tasked with taking over during perhaps the most difficult period any superintendent has faced,” said DeKalb school board chair Marshall Orson. “She is thoughtful, dynamic, and innovative, and has willingly taken on multiple challenges to ensure that the District will operate in a manner designed to optimize the success of every student.”

Some community members are wary of the district’s new leader, in part, due to the school system’s history of mismanagement.

“Watson-Harris came on board on the blind side,” said Joel Edwards of the government watchdog group Restore DeKalb.

Edwards is worried about her lack of credentials and experience as a district’s top leader. However, he applauded one of her first decisions ― hiring Charles Burbridge as the district’s new chief financial officer.

Watson-Harris formerly served as the inaugural deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education. Her biography states she returned to New York after more than 15 years in Boston, where she worked as a principal and network superintendent until 2015.

She began her teaching career in New York in 1993, and her resume states she’s expected to receive her doctorate from New York University in 2021.

DeKalb County School District’s history is marred by the former chief operating officer, Pat Reid, and her architect ex-husband, who were both convicted of racketeering in 2013. They entered pleas to theft charges in connection to manipulating contracts worth $1.4 million, and their prison sentences were reduced to five years in 2015.

Former superintendent Crawford Lewis was also indicted in a corruption case involving school construction. He plead guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge and testified against Reid.

Steve Green, another former superintendent, left the district earlier this year amid a state probe into allegations that DeKalb failed to report teachers for ethics violations. Eight months ago, the district lost its credit rating amid allegations of financial mismanagement before Moody’s Investors Service reinstated it in November.

Watson-Harris, DeKalb’s sixth superintendent in a decade, said she’s determined to reform the district’s image by improving its transparency. She took over on July 1, signing a three-year contract for a $325,000 salary plus monthly spending and car allowances, among other perks.

Changes have already occurred under her watch.

During a meeting last month, Burbridge publicly acknowledged finances were not properly reported in 2018 and 2019. A former Chicago Public Schools executive, Burbridge said state auditors didn’t find illegal conduct and added the district is enacting a laundry list of solutions.

But reopening schools is “the big elephant in the room,” said Stephanie Hart, whose children attend high school in DeKalb.

DeKalb schools are not holding in-person classes until the county reports fewer than 100 positive cases per 100,000 over a two-week period, but officials on Dec. 3 reported 298 cases per capita within that period. The district’s stance elicits mixed reactions from teachers and parents.

It’s hard to judge Watson-Harris’ performance with schools closed, Hart said, but she’s optimistic about the superintendent, in part, because she’s also a parent in the community. Hart supports the reopening of schools in a careful, gradual process.

Seth Schreiber’s two children started middle school and high school in DeKalb this year. He said he would give Watson-Harris “an F” for her ability to lead and support learning. He said students are being “punished” because DeKalb falls within a small percentage of districts statewide that haven’t resumed in-person learning.

“Set a plan in fast paced motion to get these kids back in school,” Schreiber said.

Watson-Harris said she meets daily with a “COVID-19 task force” and holds biweekly discussions with an outside team of public health experts to determine if buildings can reopen.

“I don’t make these decisions in isolation,” she said. “Our plan from the beginning was guided by our promise to put the safety of our students and our staff as our number one priority. We have not moved from that space.”

Parents in northern DeKalb purchased electronic billboards supporting in-person learning. School board members, however, were not swayed. Board member Joyce Morley said during a September meeting she “will not have blood on my hands” by reopening buildings.

Schreiber said the district’s stance follows “antiquated metrics” that are rejected by public health experts when considering reopening schools.

Morley, who was the lone vote against hiring Watson-Harris, said it’s impossible for the board to accurately gauge the new superintendent’s performance until schools resume normal operations.

Additionally, Morley questioned why Watson-Harris shifted the role of deputy superintendent of schools into a second-in-command position, managing what Watson-Harris called “community empowerment, innovation and partnerships.” Morley said residents can’t engage with the deputy if everything is shut down during the pandemic.

Watson-Harris said she changed the deputy role after the results of “an initial survey of gaps in the organization.”

Dan Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators said it’s fair to review a superintendent’s performance right now because the pandemic will “make or break them.”

In-person teaching has become “highly political,” Domenech said. Some parents want schools to reopen regardless of infection rates because they need to work.

“It’s been very difficult for superintendents because they’re in the crosshairs in their community,” he said. “Whatever decision you make, you’re going to have half of the parents applauding you and the other half wanting your job.”

Online learning, meanwhile, “illuminated some of the equity issues within the district,” Watson-Harris said.

“We have to make sure we’re following up with our necessary staff mobilizing to stay in contact with our students who are not logging on,” she said. “We do anticipate there will be a COVID slide [in learning], but we’re hoping we’ve been able to get ahead of that.”

The challenges are steep, but Watson-Harris expressed optimism for DeKalb’s future. She said she’s inspired by the diverse community of their students, as well as the school faculty and staff supporting them.

“Not everybody thinks the same and wants the same thing and we have a lot of polarizing issues right now, but at the end of the day I believe everyone really appreciates that this is such a melting pot type of community,” she said.

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