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DeKalb School Board fired superintendent during investigation that exonerated her

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DeKalb School Board fired superintendent during investigation that exonerated her

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

Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in The District, a special newsletter for paying subscribers of Decaturish.com. To become a paying subscriber, visit supportmylocalnews.com

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb County Board of Education’s attorneys earlier this year hired a private firm to investigate allegations of sketchy promotions in the district and questionable use of federal coronavirus relief money on employee bonuses.

The firm in question, The Young Group LLC, began its interviews on March 6, 2022, and interviewed a total of 13 people, including then-superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris. After the investigator interviewed her on April 26, the DeKalb County Board of Education unexpectedly fired her.

“Superintendent Watson-Harris was terminated from her position immediately following the interview,” the investigator wrote.

At the time of her interview with The Young Group, the investigation was not public knowledge. The investigation wrapped up earlier this month and ultimately cleared Watson-Harris of wrongdoing, but it raised many questions about the conduct of Chief of Staff Antwyn Brown.

DeKalb County Schools Chief of Staff Chief of Staff Antwyn Brown

Decaturish obtained a copy of that investigation on May 11. Multiple messages sent to the district’s spokesperson containing detailed questions about the report’s findings went unanswered. The district’s spokesperson said late Wednesday evening a response would be forthcoming.

It’s unclear who directed the DeKalb County Board of Education’s attorneys to hire the private investigator, or why. If that directive came from the board, it didn’t happen in a public meeting. The cost of the investigation is also unknown. The first inkling that an investigation was underway came after the board fired Watson-Harris.

Board member Anna Hill first alluded to the investigation during a recent Dunwoody Homeowner’s Association meeting.

“I can also assure you more information will be forthcoming,” Hill said, afterwards declining to confirm if an investigation was taking place. Initially, it appeared she might’ve been referencing a whistleblower lawsuit filed on March 7 by former COO Ben Estill. His attorneys filed the lawsuit a day after The Young Group began its investigation. But the source who alerted Decaturish about The Young Group’s report said Hill was referencing that specific report, not the Estill suit.

Hill spoke to the Dunwoody Homeowner’s Association on May 1. The Young Group’s report is dated May 3.

Interviewed by phone on May 11, Watson-Harris said she wasn’t aware of The Young Group’s investigation until two members of the board of education alerted her to it. She said some school board members didn’t know an investigation was taking place.

Watson-Harris said she felt exonerated by the report’s conclusions. She had received a copy as well.

“From what I’ve read so far, it’s validating in terms of the description of my involvement with any of that,” Watson-Harris said. “I think that there’s a lot more for the good people of DeKalb County to discover about this entire process in terms of the code of ethics that the board of education is supposed to follow and the conditions surrounding the report itself and how that all came to be.”

Decaturish asked Watson-Harris about Estill’s allegations that he was fired for asking questions about irregularities in the district’s finances.

“What I shared with him when he was terminated was we were making the decisions that were best for the district at the time,” Watson-Harris said. “[His questions about irregularities] were not something that was part of my decision process. That was not why we made the decision to part ways with Ben Estill.”

There’s one person repeatedly named in both Estill’s lawsuit and The Young Group’s report: Chief of Staff Antwyn Brown.

The Estill lawsuit alleges that “Brown took no investigative or curative actions” in response to Estill’s concerns, though it alleges he did so in concert with Watson-Harris. But The Young Group’s report paints a different picture of that relationship, finding that Brown often kept his boss in the dark about what was going on at central office.

The report found Brown consistently failed to follow board of education policy and procedures regarding staff promotions and didn’t notify his boss, Watson-Harris, about how CARES Act funds were being distributed.

WSB-TV in April reported, “DeKalb school officials approved spending more than $100,000 in federal CARES Act money to pay bonuses as high as $10,000 to school administrators who took on an ‘exponential increase in responsibilities’ during the pandemic.”

The report found that, “DeKalb County Schools paid $114,250 to 36 employees who were concentrated in Human Resources.”

Another source provided Decaturish with a spreadsheet detailing the bonuses, and they line up with the WSB-TV story. It’s unclear whether the bonuses became part of the Young Group’s investigation following that news report, or whether it was part of the firm’s initial charge.

The investigators also interviewed Human Resources Chief Michelle Jones about the bonuses. According to district policy, Watson-Harris was required to sign off on bonuses larger than $5,000.

“Interviews and a review of documents revealed that … Jones requested supplements for the HR division and did not seek Director [of Title 1 Shaun] Thompson’s approval for disbursement of federal funds,” the Youn Group’s report says. “…Jones did not obtain Superintendent Watson-Harris’ approval for disbursement of funds of $5,000.00 or more than required. [Chief of Staff] Brown should have notified Superintendent Watson-Harris of potential red-flags in regard to large amounts of supplements being requested by … Jones. [Chief of Staff] Brown was aware that Director Thompson was responsible for federal funds and her approval was required for disbursement of federal funds, but did not conduct proper follow-up with the requestors regarding the federal fund supplement disbursements.”

In October 2021, the DeKalb County School Board implemented a policy change, stating that hires for director level and above must also be approved by the board. Previously, approval was only required for executive level hires.

The investigator found that Brown did not follow the policies set by the board when making promotions in the district.

For instance, when the investigator looked into the promotion of Interim Chief Financial Officer Masana Mailliard to the position of Deputy Chief Financial Officer, it found that, “Brown verbally approved Masana Mailliard to Karen Beadles, Director Total Rewards for the position of Deputy CFO without prior approval from Superintendent Watson-Harris or presenting Mailliard to the [school board] for approval.”

“As Chief of Staff to Superintendent Watson-Harris, COS Brown knew the direct placement of Mailliard without [school board] approval was contrary to existing [DeKalb County School District Board of Education] policy and procedures which require DCSD BOE approval,” the Young Group report says.

Young Group also reviewed the promotion of Associate Superintendent for Continuous Improvement Oliver Lewis to the position of Chief Continuous Improvement and Accountability. The investigator concluded, “Contrary to policy, COS Brown approved Oliver Lewis for the position of Chief of Continuous Improvement and Accountability without prior approval from the Superintendent Watson-Harris or presenting him to the DCSD BOE for approval.”

Brown joined DeKalb County Schools in April 2020, before the school board hired Watson-Harris. Before that, he worked as Chief of Staff for the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners for four years.

To read the full report, click here.

Sara Amis contributed to this story.

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