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DeKalb School Board meeting to approve contract for interim superintendent goes off the rails

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DeKalb School Board meeting to approve contract for interim superintendent goes off the rails

DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mountain Industrial Boulevard in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated. 

By Sara Amis, contributor

DeKalb County, GA — At a special called meeting on April 29, the DeKalb Board of Education approved a contract for Dr. Vasanne Tinsley as interim superintendent, following the sudden firing of Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris on April 26.

She will be paid $27,082 per month, which amounts to about $325,000 per year.

The meeting was contentious, with some school board members including the Chair ignoring normal decorum. It wrapped up a chaotic week for the school district which saw numerous politicians calling for the school board’s reform.

Watson-Harris, who recently defended her Doctorate of Education dissertation, told Decaturish that she had not yet received any formal notice of separation from the district as of April 28.

“I still haven’t received the reason I was terminated,” said Watson-Harris, adding that she was suddenly dropped from the Board’s Zoom meeting on April 26. She was notified after the meeting by Board Chair Vickie Turner and Vice Chair Diijon DaCosta that the board had voted to end her employment and was asked to leave the building.

The school board released a termination letter immediately after the meeting on April 29, saying that it was terminating Watson-Harris “for convenience” and that she would be paid the severance stipulated in her contract.

During the April 29 meeting, DaCosta made a motion to approve Tinsley’s contract, seconded by school board member Dr. Joyce Morley.

Both board member Allyson Gevertz and board member Marshall Orson raised objections.

“I am opposed to this not because of the person, but because I don’t believe that we should be paying two people two salaries to do the same job,” said Gevertz.

Orson stated that he would abstain because he did not want to appear to ratify a decision he believed to be possibly illegal.

“It’s my belief that there’s a substantial risk that the actions leading to and culminating in the meeting of April 26 are illegal. We know that the attorney general is investigating this matter. If in fact, they conclude that it was illegal then any actions taken at that meeting would be invalid under state law,” said Orson.

He went on to say that he would otherwise vote no for the same reasons stated by Gevertz.

“There is a reasonable argument that we already have a superintendent serving the school district,” said Orson.

Board member Morley went on a lengthy tirade accusing other board members of ignoring previous illegal actions by the board and district, lying to the public, excluding her from decisions, and encouraging members of the public to call her a gender-based slur.

“It wasn’t illegal for board members to be behind someone in the community, excuse the expression, calling me as a board member a c***,” said Morley.

She also appeared to blame other board members for her being named in a racial discrimination lawsuit by superintendent finalist Rudy Crew, for which the district ultimately paid a $750,000 settlement.

Morley even accused other board members of violent intentions.

“It constantly is shown that board members are willing to try to kill off each other,” said Morley.

Later in the discussion, Morley reiterated her belief that she had been threatened with violence but claimed that Superintendent Watson-Harris was somehow responsible.

“My life was in danger, I was threatened, and [Watson-Harris] never gave Chief Gober the authority to do what was necessary,” said Morley.

Morley did not clarify why she felt threatened. It is unclear why Morley believed that a threat to her safety was the superintendent’s responsibility, or whether she brought any concerns about her safety to local police.

At no point did school board Chair Turner attempt to rein Morley in or bring order to the proceedings, except when some other board members were making their points.

Board member Anna Hill introduced a motion to ratify the decision of the board to terminate the contract with Dr. Cheryl Watson-Harris on April 26.

Orson objected on procedural grounds, in that he felt that if the initial decision was questionable then the attempt to re-introduce it would not fix the problem. He also objected to the substance of the decision, saying “I believe that there’s no rational basis for the termination of Superintendent Watson Harris. I think she has served this district admirably, and in a way that is to the benefit of the students in DeKalb. County, and to the benefit of DeKalb County. And I think any effort to replace her would be a tragic mistake.”

Orson went on to say that he felt that the board was placing itself in jeopardy by its decisions, which are prompting investigations and further turning public sentiment against the board.

“Far more importantly, in terms of how we best serve children, she is one of the finest instructional leaders if not the best I have ever come across,” he said.

Orson praised Watson-Harris’ ability to inspire principals in particular, who he described as being on the front lines, to follow her vision for the district.

“I’ve never seen that kind of buy in, or that kind of support in any previous iteration in terms of leadership in this district,” Orson added.

Morley accused other school board members of attempting to destroy the district because the board made decisions they disagreed with.

“We have to get to a point where board members are mature enough that when they can’t have their way, they don’t throw tantrums and they don’t get upset, and they don’t go and upset the applecart and to destroy our entire system and destroy us, the board and destroy the students and destroy a school district,” said Morley.

Morley also accused other board members of interfering in the daily business of the district and of making decisions for the personal benefit of individual Board members. “And it’s been that way, when quid pro quo becomes the norm, not the exception.”

Morley offered no specific evidence for this claim.

Morley said, “I’m not here to bash [Dr.] Watson-Harris.”

She went on to bash Waston-Harris, disparaging her knowledge and decisions while saying that Watson-Harris did not know how to do zero-based accounting and had brought candidates for the HR and Operations chief positions who were not qualified.

Orson among others has cited the school board’s refusal to allow Watson-Harris to hire candidates of her choice to top administrative positions as examples of the board interfering with the former superintendent’s ability to do her job.

Morley blamed Watson-Harris for the long-established fear of retaliation among district staff, and for low teacher morale during the pandemic.

“We had three suicides. I’ve had three people call within the last couple of months to say, I’m going to resign, I can’t take it anymore,” said Morley.

Morley also attacked Watson-Harris’ qualifications.

“She wasn’t qualified, she was never qualified,” said Morley, asserting that Watson-Harris had never been an administrator and had only been an elementary and middle school principal.

According to her LinkedIn profile and the DCSD website, before coming to work as Superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, Watson-Harris served as First Deputy Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the country with an enrollment of 976,771 in 2017. Before that, she served as Senior Executive Director of Field Support and Brooklyn Executive Borough Director in the same school system. In 2019 she received a New York Academy of Public Education President’s Award.

In addition to her recent EdD from New York University, Watson-Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Education from Marymount College and a Masters of Education from Harvard University.

In apparent contradiction to her earlier complaint that the board interfered with daily operations, Morley also complained that the board allowed the former superintendent too much latitude.

“The superintendent dictated what she wanted to the board, and you let her do it. That’s not what’s supposed to happen,” said Morley.

After complaining about hiring Watson-Harris over Zoom during a pandemic and offering her a “nearly $400,000 package,” Morley went off on a tangent that appeared to equate other board members’ actions to recent legislation restricting what can be taught in schools.

“I’m just sick and tired of how people take,” Morley said. “The same way with banning books. The same way they’re going against LGBTQ, the same way they’ve gone against blacks, they go against browns, this was part of a takeover of public education. it’s not right. And nobody will stand up. And I said, when do we stop it. People are dying every day. Killing off people because of the lies that are being told, people hurting people’s lives. Because you are selfish.”

The board chair did not respond to any of Morley’s accusations, or reprove her for personal attacks.

“Thank you, Dr. Morley,” said Turner.

Board member Deirdre Pierce stated that she would have preferred to discuss conflicts with Watson-Harris as a group and allow her to respond before deciding to terminate her contract.

Board member Allyson Gevertz introduced a substitute amendment to reinstate Watson-Harris, citing irregularities in process up to and including the meeting on April 26. She also pointed out that everyone from members of Congress to the Georgia governor, state legislators, DeKalb County commissioners, mayors, and members of the public were opposed to the decision.

“There’s a petition out there. I’ve heard from students. A fourth grader yesterday questioned our judgment on firing the superintendent. I mean, everyone is questioning this. So why would we ratify this?” said Gevertz. .

Orson supported reinstating Watson-Harris.

“I think this is a way out of the mess that has been created,” Orson said. “We are seeing the repercussions in every corner of the county and from state government, from having made a precipitous decision that is harmful to the district, is harmful to our children and is harmful to DeKalb County,” Orson added.

Turner spoke against reinstating Watson-Harris, saying, “We’ve put a lot of information out there. I don’t know if we put out there that Flex Academy has a 49% failure rate, that we have had violence at an all time high in our schools and weapons are at an all time high.”

Turner also called the district’s school choice program “a debacle.”

Morley repeated some of her earlier assertions and claimed that Watson-Harris had refused to meet with Turner, saying “We’ve had this woman insubordinate.”

Morley stated that topics discussed in executive session were represented differently to the public, and again implied that other board members were acting inappropriately.

“I guess when you make deals ahead of time, you’ve got to hold it together,” said Morley.

Both Morley and Turner referred to mistakes made by the district’s administration as justification for firing the former superintendent. Watson-Harris presented a proposal to hire NorthStar, a professional development firm, to train district employees at the April 18 regular meeting. The board rejected the contract.

“I want to make it clear to the people listening, that just because a board member says something, it doesn’t make it true,” said Gevertz. “This idea that we’ve had a huge increase in school violence, that’s false, we’ve been told that it’s false.” She added that a presentation had been given at the school board’s retreat showing that violence has decreased over the last seven years.

“We know what went wrong with Flex Academy, we know it was overwhelmed with the pandemic, and we spent a whole session at the retreat, talking about the changes we’re making in the Flex Academy,” said Gevertz.

She added that the Board had also discussed the school choice program previously.

“If there’s a problem with the vendor, change the vendor,” said Gevertz. “These are some of these messages that keep circulating. We all know it’s not true.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Gevertz, I could almost give you a round of applause. It’s obvious that you support your motion on the floor,” said Turner.

Turner then asked Gevertz about something that she had written on Facebook. “I just want to add that I thought I heard that maybe some of your postings might have implied that we were in jeopardy with accreditation, but you’ve corrected it. And I thank you for correcting that and saying that that was not it. And somebody misunderstood you about that. Was that what happened?” asked Turner.

“What happened was people thought that because the governor and the state superintendent were appalled by a subset of the board’s behavior, that behavior was gonna put us at accreditation risk. I put something out saying we’re not at accreditation risk but our credibility is at risk because of some of these shady things that have gone on,” said Gevertz.

“Because of lies that have been shared. That’s right, because of lies,” replied Turner.

The motion to reinstate Watson-Harris failed, with only Gevertz and Orson voting for it and Turner, Morley, DaCosta, and Hill voting against it. Pierce abstained.

Orson spoke against the motion to ratify the previous decision to fire Watson-Harris, saying that he believed that as an agenda item it had also not been properly noticed, and would only add to the defects of the process.

The motion to add an amendment to ratify the previous decision passed with Gevertz and Orson voting no and Pierce abstaining. The contract with interim superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley passed along the same lines.

When Orson attempted to make a point of order about the motion, Turner said, “Just a minute Mr. Orson, I know you want to be right.”

After the motion passed, Turner said, “Congratulations, Dr. Tinsley. Thank you for saying yes to us, to our school, our students, staff and families. And we appreciate your willingness to serve, despite some of the challenges that you came into this job.”

Tinsley said, “I am elated to be back. Although I did have a brief time away during retirement, I can think of no better place that I would like to be to help to make a change. And so I wanted to share briefly, the things that I was focusing on in the first 30 days.”

Tinsley said that she had already started visiting schools and a process of creating a task list to address conditions at facilities that need attention.

“I’m going to and have already started looking at the current budget,” said Tinsley.

The fiscal year ends June 30, 2022.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the new superintendent’s salary. This information has been corrected. She will be paid $27,082 per month, which amounts to about $325,000 per year.

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