TORPY: ‘Disruptor’ could head DeKalb schools. Is that a good thing?

Finalist selected in year-long search for DeKalb superintendent, some not pleased with the choice

Finalist selected in year-long search for DeKalb superintendent, some not pleased with the choice

Being hired as superintendent for DeKalb County Schools is like getting a job as a crash-test dummy. You know you’re going to get pounded.

Last year, a faction of DeKalb’s school board summarily — and mysteriously — discharged Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris after just 22 months on the job. She was trying to make changes concerning the layers of bureaucracy, which wasn’t appreciated.

Now, the board — or at least a different faction of that board — wants a change agent and has settled on Devon Horton, a superintendent from the Chicago area. Horton calls himself a “disruptor” and heavily sprinkles the term “equity” into his narrative because that’s what sells these days in urban school districts.

If he is approved by the board, he’ll be the ninth superintendent for DeKalb since 2010.

During the 2020 search, the board entertained more than 60 candidates. This time around, fewer than 30 educators raised their hands. This is not surprising, seeing that DeKalb shoots a superintendent out of a circus cannon on average every 18 months or so.

On top of that, the job just ain’t what it used to be, what with the stress of COVID, poisonous politics, ramped-up parents and the never-ending job of trying to turn around underachieving schools.

So here we are with Horton, who has toiled in the education business for 23 years, most recently as the superintendent of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65, just north of Chicago. His current district is pre-K through eighth grade, with no high schools, and 6,500 students. It’s a far cry from DeKalb’s 93,000 kids.

Horton’s supporters like his gumption. Not only is he “disruptive,” but his bio also touts him as “an anti-racist leader across the nation.” Not that any racists would ever have a chance to head DeKalb schools. The student population is 59% Black, 20% Hispanic, 11% white, 6% Asian and 3% “other.”

Vasanne S. Tinsley, Interim Superintendent of Dekalb County Public Schools (third on the left), cuts the ribbon during the new Students Success Mobile Center unveiling at Lithonia High School on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.
 Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Horton’s penchant to be very publicly “anti-racist” has made him become a controversial figure and one that I wager will bring the district plenty of renown going forward.

Soon after getting his Chicago-area job in the summer of 2020, he said “marginalized” students would be the first to return to school following COVID lockouts. This was, he said, “about equity for Black and brown students, for special education students, for our LGBTQ students.”

Naturally, that didn’t go over with some parents, who complained.

The school board had Horton’s back, saying, “When you challenge policies and protocols established to ensure an equitable experience for Black and brown students, you are part of a continuum of resistance to equity and desire to maintain white supremacy.”

In essence: if you gripe, you’re racist.

A year later, Horton and the school system were sued by a white drama teacher saying the district’s “equity training” created a “hostile environment,” with an endless parade of anti-whiteness lessons. The suit was filed by an Atlanta-based conservative group, the Southeast Legal Foundation.

Publicity about the suit brought out anger, venom and even some veiled threats according to police reports filed by school officials. Several of those reports, gathered by the local news site Evanston Now, indicate police and a couple of school administrators did not think they were actual threats. But Horton apparently did and received round-the-clock security for a year costing $500,000.

The security detail became public in May 2022 when some nooses were found on school property.

The DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie B. Turner announces Dr. Vasanne Tinsley as interim superintendent following the DeKalb State of the County Address on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

When that occurred, Horton did not wait for an investigation before wading in.

He immediately branded the incident a “hate crime and a deliberate and specific incidence of an outwardly racist act. It resounds with a tone of hate and hurt that will impact members of our entire community, namely Black and African American students, staff, and families who have experienced generations of harm.”

Turns out, a middle school student planted the items. Police said the act did not qualify as a hate crime under state law.

I may point out that the Evanston/Skokie school board likes what Horton is doing and not long ago re-upped his contract. It did not preclude him for looking for bigger things.

In August 2020, just two months after taking the reins of his current district, Horton and four others formed an LLC. Horton later said the LLC never did business and was quickly dissolved. One might wonder why a recently hired school superintendent would bother creating a business in the first place. The day job should have kept him busy enough.

Within two years, three of his former partners got a total of $150,000 from the district in no-bid contracts, according to an investigative blog. Horton said nothing untoward happened and the contracts fell within legal exemption for contracts to be let without bids.

Seeing the history of DeKalb and some of the antics surrounding the county, Horton might just fit in here nicely.

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