The abrupt firing of the superintendent in Georgia's third-largest school system brought fierce pushback Wednesday, dragging a local dispute into a statewide spotlight.
DeKalb County school board members voted 4-1 in a virtual meeting Tuesday to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris immediately, after less than two years on the job in the 93,000-student district.
Watson-Harris was DeKalb County's sixth superintendent in a decade, having worked as first deputy chancellor in New York City's sprawling school system before coming to Georgia.
Watson-Harris said in a statement Wednesday that she was “blindsided” by her termination and was disconnected from the virtual meeting when board members discussed firing her.
“I was unaware that my contract or employment would be discussed during yesterday’s meeting as I was not notified and it was not identified on the meeting notice,” Watson-Harris said.
Vasanne Tinsley, formerly deputy superintendent of student support and intervention, was named interim superintendent.
State Superintendent Richard Woods and Gov. Brian Kemp both lambasted the firing.
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“I am highly concerned that these serious issues in DeKalb County could be a result of a school system choosing politics over students, families, and educators,” the Republican Kemp said in a statement Wednesday. He said he would coordinate with Woods on possible further action.
Woods, in a letter to DeKalb school board chair Vickie Turner, blasted the action as a “step backward,” noting he had sent a letter Monday saying the board needed to work with state officials to solve facilities issues brought to light by a recent student video chronicling problems at Druid Hills High School.
“Instead of moving deliberately and decisively in line with my recommendations, the board chose to largely meet this moment with dysfunction and deflection,” Woods wrote. He wrote that the actions in firing Watson-Harris “erode not only the public's trust, but my trust in your seriousness to address the issues facing DeKalb County Schools.”
In 2013, Gov. Nathan Deal replaced a number of DeKalb County school board members after the district was threatened with a loss of accreditation. The new board hired Michael Thurmond, now DeKalb County’s elected CEO, as interim superintendent from 2013 to 2015.
In his State of the County address Thursday, Thurmond lamented the firing, as Tinsley and school board members listened in the audience.
“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,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Thurmond said. He said the firing “feels a lot like that crap” he inherited. Twice, Thurmond said “Enough," pounding the lectern for emphasis, to applause.
Tinsley had been retired since 2020, and critics questioned how the board arranged for her to be interim superintendent without violating the state open meetings law. In a separate Wednesday letter to state Sen. Elena Parent, a DeKalb County Democrat, Woods said he is asking Attorney General Chris Carr to investigate possible open meetings violations. Tinsley told reporters she was approached Monday but didn't say who asked her.
The district is likely to have to pay the remaining 14 months on Watson-Harris' contract, about $380,000. Before it hired Watson-Harris, the district considered and rejected hiring former New York City schools Chancellor Rudy Crew. The district agreed to pay Crew $750,000 to settle a lawsuit, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The firing came hours after board chair Turner appeared to blame Watson-Harris for poor conditions at Druid Hills in a letter to Woods.
Turner told reporters Wednesday that "the changes that we have had to make are for the benefit of our children.” She said board members want better academic achievement, facilities and support for employees, and seemed to blame Watson-Harris for those problems.
“The challenges that we have dealt with in our school district were just being ignored in some ways," Turner said.
Board member Marshall Orson, who missed the meeting, said he would have voted against firing Watson-Harris. He wrote on Facebook that the decision was “clearly planned action taken by a subgroup” of board members. “There was no rationale for the decision,” he added.
A group of students had made a video about poor conditions including raw sewage at Druid Hills that gained wide attention. But the board rejected plans for $50-million-plus overhaul at the high school, instead voting to make minor repairs at all the district's schools.
The dispute dredged up racial and class tensions that often divide the district between a wealthier white minority in the northern end of the suburban Atlanta county and a poorer, Black majority in the southern end.
Woods intervened in the dispute by saying the state would refuse to approve the district's facility plans until it addressed issues at the high school. Such a refusal would block the district from obtaining state facilities money.
In March, Watson-Harris apologized after administrators included a list of 10 performance factors in next year's teacher contracts, arousing opposition.
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