DeKalb County school district abruptly fires leader

DeKalb County school board members voted 4-1 in a virtual meeting on April 27, 2022 to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris immediately, after less than two years on the job in the 93,000-student district.

Jasmine Robinson / WABE

Board members abruptly fired the leader of Georgia’s third-largest school system Tuesday, creating further questions about the district’s direction.

DeKalb County school board members voted 4-1 in a virtual meeting 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 firing.

“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.

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 Vickie Turner appeared to blame Watson-Harris for poor conditions at one of the district’s high schools in a letter to Georgia state Superintendent Richard Woods. However, Turner and the majority of the board said in a statement that its “relationship with Mrs. Watson-Harris had been deteriorating for some time to the point the association became irreconcilable.”

“The board lost confidence in Mrs. Watson-Harris’s ability to provide the leadership the district needs in the face of significant challenges,” the statement continued.

Board member Marshall Orson, who missed the meeting, said he would have voted against firing Watson-Harris, praising her for her support of principals and efforts to make district bureaucracy more responsive. 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 High School that gained wide attention. But the board rejected plans for $50-million-plus overhaul at the high school, instead voting to make minor repairs there and spread repair money around 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’s ability to obtain 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.

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.

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