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DeKalb School Board expressed concerns about facilities, according to leaked evaluation

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DeKalb School Board expressed concerns about facilities, according to leaked evaluation

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.

DeKalb County, GA — During her evaluation by the DeKalb School Board in September 2021, former superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris heard that board members were overwhelmingly unsatisfied with the condition of the district’s facilities.

Less than a year later, the school board fired her following a controversy surrounding the safe and unsanitary conditions at Druid Hills High School, which the school board has continued to exclude from a list of renovation projects. The superintendent’s evaluation, obtained by Richard Belcher at WSB-TV and sent to Decaturish, is dated Sept. 7, 2021. A week later, on Sept. 13, the school board declined to extend a $5,660,252 facilities maintenance contract with SSC Services Solutions.

The evaluation says six out of the seven board members said Watson-Harris’ management of facilities “needs improvement.”

“Outstanding work orders are at a four-year-high,” the evaluation says. “District is heading in absolutely the wrong direction.” The evaluation also notes that the district had trouble hiring people needed to do the work, noting there were 40 vacancies in facilities maintenance.

However, the month after the evaluation, the board moved to limit who Watson-Harris could hire.  Before her firing, the board had been resistant to Watson-Harris hiring a permanent director of operations as well as human resources.

The school board has never officially given a reason for terminating Watson-Harris, who was fired for the board’s convenience and not for cause. A message left with Watson-Harris was not immediately returned. Reporting by Decaturish has revealed other things going on behind the scenes between the board and superintendent. Late last year, Watson-Harris discussed a plan with the school board to reorganize the district’s central office. Initially, the plan would’ve required people in senior positions at DeKalb County Schools’ central office to reapply for their jobs, but eventually, that plan was watered down due to “hesitance” from members of the DeKalb County School Board, Watson-Harris said.

Investigative reporting by Decaturish also revealed that a private investigative firm hired by the district to look into allegations of sketchy promotions and questionable use of federal coronavirus relief money on employee bonuses produced a report that exonerated Watson-Harris. That investigation began right around the time the Druid Hills High community started applying pressure to the school board for leaving their school’s modernization off the district’s list of projects. After the private investigator interviewed Watson-Harris on April 26, the DeKalb County Board of Education unexpectedly fired her that same day. Records obtained by Decaturish show the investigation apparently began on Feb. 17.

School Board member Marshall Orson, who has supported Watson-Harris, said it was “somewhat unfair” to hold Watson-Harris responsible for the condition of facilities “when we curtailed the available staffing and work,” noting that the board declined to extend SSC’s contract following the evaluation.

He said when the board ended that contract, it also got rid of the work order system the company was using. Orson noted that Watson-Harris was hired in June 2020 and had been on the job a little more than a year. She took over in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when most buildings weren’t open, he said. Orson also questioned the leak of the evaluation. Under state law, government agencies can withhold confidential evaluations of public employees.

“Those records are exceptions to the Open Records Act,” Orson said.

WSB-TV reported that Watson-Harris has retained Clint Rucker as counsel. He previously worked as a prosecutor in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. Rucker told Belcher at WSB-TV that Watson-Harris is contemplating a lawsuit that would address her terminated contract and “public statements made by officials.”

The evaluation showed a need for improvement in several areas. One of those areas was implementation of the comprehensive master plan, which wasn’t completed at the time of the evaluation. When it was completed, that plan identified the modernization project at Druid Hills High, which the board has pointedly and consistently rejected.

The evaluation says, “Assessment of the superintendent’s implementation [of the comprehensive master plan is premature] because the CMP hasn’t been finished. However items/issues needing more attention are real and should be addressed.”

To read the evaluation, click here and here.

Sara Amis contributed to this article.

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