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DeKalb School Board introduces interim superintendent, says district is ready for change

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DeKalb School Board introduces interim superintendent, says district is ready for change

DeKalb School Board Chair Vickie Turner (second from left), along with Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta, and board member Anna Hill, introduced interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley (far left) during a press conference on April 27. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

This story has been updated.

DeKalb County, GA — Following the news of DeKalb County Schools firing the superintendent, members of the DeKalb School Board introduced interim Superintendent Vasanne Tinsley, a former deputy superintendent, after the county CEO’s State of the County address on April 27.

CEO Michael Thurmond said that the issues facing the DeKalb County School District aren’t about the school board or the board chair. The issue is the county school district’s almost 100,000 students. Thurmond also wondered how the district got back to where it was when former Gov. Nathan Deal removed several school board members at the time after DCSD nearly lost its accreditation in 2013.

“We almost lost the DeKalb County School District because of what grown folks are doing on the school board,” Thurmond said. “Enough.”

Thurmond served as the DeKalb superintendent from 2013-2015 and is credited with fixing the district’s financial situation, addressing mismanagement and bringing a sense of stability, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

During his speech, Thurmond said the recent circumstances of the district “feels a lot like that crap” he dealt with coming into the interim superintendent role in 2013.

Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods issued a scathing letter to the DeKalb Board of Education on April 25, in which he said that DCSD has millions in unspent federal money that it can use to repair its schools.

Thurmond said he wasn’t sure how much money the district has received and wondered if the funding can be used to not only fix Druid Hills High School, but all DeKalb schools.

“If the money can be used to fix the schools, then why don’t we use the money to do it,” Thurmond said. “There are people who want the destruction of the DeKalb County School District. That’s ok. You’re always going to opposition, just don’t…be stupid enough to open up the door and invite them in.”

School Board Chair Vickie Turner said today is an exciting day in DeKalb County and the board’s focus is on the children.

“The changes we have had to make was for the benefit of our children,” Turner told reporters after the State of the County address. “We as a board made a collective decision to embrace change, to implement change, and that’s really why we’re here today.”

Tinsley retired from DCSD in 2020 and previously served as the deputy superintendent of student support and intervention. Tinsley noted that conversations began this week on Monday about her returning to the district to serve as the interim superintendent. The school board fired previous superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris on Tuesday.

Tinsley said the district plans to analyze what work needs to be done to determine how to best address issues at the schools and come up with a plan of action.

Turner didn’t elaborate much as to why the school board parted ways with Watson-Harris, but said that some of the district’s needs weren’t being met.

Watson-Harris came to DCSD in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The demands of what happened, we didn’t meet those right away. When I say demands, when our children were thrust into virtual learning…it demanded that a leader come up to a higher level,” Turner said. “The challenges that we have dealt with in our school district were being ignored in some ways. We just decided maybe this is the best time to part ways and move on, wishing her the best and also expecting the best from the change.”

The school board held a virtual called meeting on April 26 where they voted 4-1 for a separation agreement with Watson-Harris, effective immediately.

Turner, Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta, and DeKalb County School Board members Dr. Joyce Morley and Anna Hill voted in favor of firing Watson-Harris. 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. They later said they were surprised by Watson-Harris’ firing.

Da Costa and Hill joined Turner during the press conference, although most of the school board members attended the State of the County address.

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 school 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 school board represents a departure from the final recommendations of the comprehensive master plan the district spent $2 million developing.

Partially in response to public outcry, the Georgia Department of Education sent a team to Druid Hills High and Georgia State School Superintendent Woods issued a letter to the school board, 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 said 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.”

During the press conference on April 27, Turner said the district has schools facing challenges with their facilities and the board had to make a change, so they can deal with the issues.

“You’ve been hearing about just one school, but unfortunately, we have over 135 buildings and all of those buildings require attention,” Turner said. “We came and implemented change because we’re getting ready to do some work in our schools, and we’re going to take care of those things to allow our children to come to school in a safe environment and in an environment that provides a quality education. It’s a great day in DeKalb, and it’s great because it’s all about the children.”

She added that recent decisions the board has made weren’t a political thing, but were about looking out for the next generation of students.

“We’re ready to work,” Turner said. “Our plans are to visit schools. We’re going to go out and walk the properties and assess the needs, and then we’re going to commit to meet the needs.”

Watson-Harris said today that she did not know her job was for discussion during the April 26 school board meeting, and she was kicked out of the virtual meeting with no notice or acknowledgement from Turner.

She was removed from the meeting before the board fired her, she said.

“I was blindsided by yesterday’s BoE action. I was unaware that my contract or employment would be discussed during yesterday’s meeting because I was not notified, and it was not identified on the meeting notice,” Watson-Harris said.

Turner didn’t give a response to these claims, saying it was confidential.

“Our superintendent served us, and then we saw the need for change. When it was time, and it was appropriate to provide that opportunity to make that change, we did it,” Turner said. “We hope that she doesn’t walk away with hurt feelings. We hope that she walks away with a sense that she served until it was finished, and we ushered her out into our future. We wish her the very best in her endeavors, but it’s time for us to move the needle.”

Some board members also raised concerns about the timing and agenda of the April 26 and were confused by what was happening. Turner said that the board is fully aware of the challenges they are dealing with and there were no surprises.

“They may say they were surprised by the actual moment, but they were not surprised by the challenges that we have been dealing with as a school district,” Turner said. “There were no surprises because our board members have been fully apprised of the challenges at Druid Hills High School, at…High School. The board members knew it was incumbent upon us to make some changes so that we can meet the needs of our students.”

Writer Sara Amis and Editor Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this story.

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