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(BREAKING) DeKalb County School Board fires superintendent

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(BREAKING) DeKalb County School Board fires superintendent

Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris comments during the DeKalb County Board of Education regular meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

By Sara Amis, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb Board of Education held a virtual called meeting on April 26, where they voted for a separation agreement with Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, effective immediately.

The board named Dr. Vasanne Tinsley, a former Deputy Superintendent, as interim superintendent.

Board Chair Vickie Turner, Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta, and Board members Dr. Joyce Morley and Anna Hill voted in favor. Board member Deirdre Pierce voted against. Board members Marshall Orson and Allyson Gevertz had left at that point in the meeting to attend a previously planned event.

Regular district business has been overshadowed and in some cases called into question by recent events. The original meeting agenda, which included a report from the superintendent, was brushed aside.

While the meeting was evidently already planned by the time the board’s regular meeting was held April 18, it was plagued by confusion. Public notice through normal channels was not given until April 25, and according to board member Allyson Gevertz, the meeting time was moved at the last minute from 3 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., bringing it into conflict with another planned event at 5:30 p.m.

“This is a meeting that we had on our calendars as starting at 3 o’clock for weeks, and we have a really packed, very important agenda,” said Gevertz, adding that the meeting should be postponed so that all board members could be present.  Gevertz offered a motion to postpone the meeting, which was supported by board member Marshall Orson.

“This meeting was supposed to be about one single matter that we were going to discuss in executive session and it has ballooned into several additional matters, some of which I potentially haven’t been directly informed of,” said Orson.

The motion to postpone the meeting failed. Orson and Gevertz were the only supporting votes for that motion.

After Druid Hills High School was removed from a list of projects to be referred to the state for possible reimbursement, public attention was drawn to dilapidated and unsafe conditions at DHHS by a student video. Rather than return modernization of DHHS to the list of projects, the Board issued a surprise mandate to make all “priority 1,2, and 3” repairs throughout the district. The list of repairs was generated from part of the district’s Comprehensive Master Plan process, however the decision of the Board represents a departure from the final recommendations of the CMP after other factors, including public feedback, were taken into consideration.

Partially in response to public outcry, the Georgia Department of Education sent a team to Druid Hills High and on April 25 Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods issued a scathing letter to the DeKalb Board of Education, describing the repairs done at DHHS as “cosmetic” and the evidence of previous neglect as “unacceptable.”

Woods also said, “I will not recommend DeKalb County Schools’ facilities plan for State Board of Education approval while these fundamental issues and concerns remain. DeKalb’s facilities plan will not move forward in its current form.”

Without that approval, the district’s ability to receive reimbursement funds for any of their projects is now in question.

Board chair Vickie Turner issued a response to that letter on April 26 before the meeting, in which she glosses over the question of the facilities plan and puts responsibility for any needed repairs onto Watson-Harris. Turner asserts that “the Superintendent is empowered to promptly address any situation that threatens to jeopardize the health, welfare, or safety of students, staff, the District, or the public by foregoing competitive selection rules for purchasing goods and services.”

However, the board has been resistant to Watson-Harris hiring a permanent director of operations as well as human resources, and recently voted to restrict her ability to approve contracts by lowering the amount she can engage without board approval from $100,000 to $50,000.

Meanwhile, Cognia’s accreditation review, which is otherwise full of praise for the district, names the school board as the district’s weakest link.

The report uses a four-point scale: “Insufficient,” “Initiating,” “Improving” and “Impactful.”  In one of two segments devoted to the Board of Education, the standard is stated as “The governing body adheres to a code of ethics and functions with defined roles and responsibilities.”

The board is rated in that section as “Initiating” and the report specifically cites board members’ tendency to focus on their own regions rather than the district as a whole. In all other areas the district meets or exceeds standards.

The Cognia report says, “Each governing authority board member is highly committed to the district and the students, but board members are not working together collectively in support of the mission of DeKalb County Schools.”

The report found that individual board members were not always supportive of the district’s efforts.

“Board members are elected to serve four-year terms and are elected one from each of the seven regions in the DeKalb County School District,” the report says. “This structure has the tendency to put board members in the position of being a ‘representative for my region.’ The team was very meticulous in discussing the roles and responsibilities of board members only with the board members themselves. No outside conversations were held. Support for various initiatives across the district was not consistent across the board member interviews.”

The news stunned members of the community. Two state legislators contacted Decaturish to say they were shocked by the news. When the district posted the announcement on Facebook, the reaction to the news was overwhelmingly negative.

“This is sad,” one commenter said. “We have had seven superintendents since I began in 2004. Sad. Sad. Sad. This is also the third time we have paid two people for this position at once.”

Another commenter said, “The board is her boss. At some point, the board has to take responsibility for district decisions.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” said another commenter. “The majority of this board needs to be fired, not Dr. Watson-Harris! As a parent and educator, I am furious!”

Here is the school board’s full statement regarding Watson-Harris’ firing:

(STONE MOUNTAIN, GA) – At tonight’s Virtual Board Called Meeting, the DeKalb County Board of Education voted to approve a separation agreement with Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, effective immediately.

Board members voted to name Dr. Vasanne Tinsley as the interim superintendent citing its full confidence in Dr. Tinsley’s ability to operate the day-to-day activities of the DeKalb County School District (DCSD). Dr. Tinsley brings a wealth of experience to DCSD, formerly serving as the Deputy Superintendent of Student Support & Intervention in the district.

“We appreciate Mrs. Cheryl Watson-Harris for her service to the DeKalb County School District and wish her the best in her future endeavors,” Board Chair Vickie B. Turner said. “The Board has the utmost confidence in Dr. Tinsley serving as the interim superintendent. The immediate departure of Mrs. Watson- Harris will have no bearing on the search for the next superintendent. The Board remains fully committed to an open and transparent process and supporting the students of DCSD.”

Here is the school board’s full statement about the hiring of Dr. Tinsley:

(STONE MOUNTAIN, GA) – The DeKalb Board of Education is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Vasanne S. Tinsley as Interim Superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, effective immediately. The move follows the Board’s decision to shift the school system in a new direction with new leadership.

Dr. Tinsley arrived to the District in 1994 and made valuable contributions while serving in multiple positions of increasing responsibility. Dr. Tinsley began as a school counselor and advanced in her career to serving as Deputy Superintendent of Student Support and Intervention until her retirement in 2020.

The Board looks forward to partnering with Dr. Tinsley and has every confidence she has the experience and skills to lead the District with a continued focus on the vital work of serving our students, staff, families, and the greater DeKalb County community. The Board expects Dr. Tinsley to be the unifying leader the community currently needs.

The appointment of Dr. Tinsley follows today’s Board’s action to terminate for convenience the employment agreement of Mrs. Cheryl Watson-Harris. The Board noted 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 Board recognizes the efforts and contributions Mrs. Watson-Harris made during her time in the District and wishes her the very best in her future personal and professional endeavors.

With important work to do in the coming weeks and months, the Board now begins plans to conduct a formal search for a permanent superintendent.

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates …

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