DeKalb School Board member Anna Hill addresses skeptical crowd in DunwoodyFILE PHOTO: Board member Anna Hill proposed an amendment to have the district address priority 1, 2, and 3 repairs throughout the district, including those at Druid Hills High School during the DeKalb County Board of Education regular meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Dunwoody, GA — DeKalb Board of Education member Anna Hill on Sunday for the first time provided public comments about the sudden firing of Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.
Hill has not publicly written about it on social media, but on May 1 gave lengthy public comments about the firing to the Dunwoody Homeowner’s Association. She placed much of the blame on Watson-Harris reading a statement she said was vetted by the district’s attorneys. Members of the DHA at times encouraged Hill to turn the mirror on herself and her fellow board members, noting that DeKalb County has had numerous superintendents. Watson-Harris was the seventh superintendent in 12 years.
The firing occurred after the district received a letter from state Superintendent Richard Woods threatening to cut off the district’s facilities funds over repairs to Druid Hills High that he said were “cosmetic.” The board responded a day later on Aug. 26, pinning most of the blame on Watson-Harris. Hours later, they fired her.
While Hill declined to answer specific questions, on advice of the district’s attorneys, in her opening remarks she said Watson-Harris, who told the media she was “blindsided” by the firing, should not have been surprised by what happened.
“Please rest assured, her termination was not a knee-jerk reaction that happened overnight,” Hill said.
While Hill cited some issues she had with the administration, notably a $250 million variance between the district’s accounting system for sales tax money and a contractor’s, she was reluctant to answer direct questions posed by members of the audience.
“I can also assure you more information will be forthcoming,” Hill said.
Decaturish contacted Hill after the DHA meeting to ask if there was an investigation into Watson-Harris occurring, and she declined comment. The DeKalb County School Board has not publicly taken any action regarding an investigation of the superintendent.
Attendees at the DHA meeting also asked Hill why she didn’t do more to reel in her more contentious colleagues, notably Dr. Joyce Morley. At a recent meeting to approve the contract of interim superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley, Morley went on an epic tirade, using profanity and accusing school board of members of plotting to kill each other. Hill, who represents Dunwoody, has found herself in an unlikely alliance with Morley and Board Chair Vickie Turner, and Diijon DaCosta who represent south DeKalb, creating the voting block that has driven much of the board’s recent decision-making.
Hill compared the school board to a contentious Thanksgiving dinner, where everyone knows there’s going to be an argument about something.
“I can’t control others,” Hill said. “I can only control myself.”
When pressed further about her unwillingness to criticize the remarks of board members, Hill said, “It’’s between the voters and representatives.”
DHA members asked why Hill didn’t post about the firing on social media or email her constituents.
“My job does not require that,” Hill said, telling the audience she prefers one-on-one conversations.
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 on April 18 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 CMP after other factors, including public feedback, were taken into consideration. Hill proposed prioritizing the priority 1, 2 and 3 repairs after saying that there were other schools that needed more attention than Druid Hills High.
During the discussion about Hill’s proposal, Cheryl Watson-Harris pointed out that this change would account for a significant portion of the budget and would de-prioritize other projects the board had previously requested, including early learning centers.
“I wish that we had time to unpack that proposal and understand where the funding is coming from,” said Watson-Harris.
However, Hill said Watson-Harris had the opportunity to work with other board members while they were collaborating on her proposal. Those collaborations did not occur in a public meeting. She read aloud a text from Watson-Harris sent on April 17 – the day before the vote – that said, “I’m confident you will have a successful proposal.”
“It is confusing to me, she has said on numerous occasions she didn’t know about it,” Hill said. “Not only did she know about it, she refused to meet with me and Chair Turner to talk about it.”
Attempts to reach Watson-Harris for comment were unsuccessful.
Hill said she had “on multiple occasions” encouraged the superintendent to prioritize repairs to bring the district into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but the work was not done. She also had questions about financial reporting for special purpose local option sales tax money and wanted the superintendent to address those concerns before voters were asked to renew it in November 2021. That didn’t happen, Hill said. Voters renewed the SPLOST by an overwhelming margin.
After the meeting, she told Decaturish there was a $250 million variance between the school district’s accounting for SPLOST money and a contractor’s accounting. In response to a question at the DHA meeting, she said she was not accusing anyone in the district of fraud.
“I wonder if this means funds were overspent, or could this be a simple case of sloppy accounting?” said Hill, who owns an accounting firm.
One attendee noted that most of Hill’s remarks were directed at the superintendent. He asked her whether she blamed the school board for any of the district’s instability.
“I never said the board was 100 percent innocent,” Hill said.
Here’s the video from the May 1 DHA meeting.
Here is Hill’s full statement from the May 1 DHA meeting:
Good evening. Tonight, I am here to speak to my own homeowners’ association and with neighbors who’ve expressed concern about the actions of the past weeks. I was happy to accept the offer to meet with you this evening. Though I know you would prefer I discuss other issues, I wanted to bring to you important work that has been underway for more than a year. Work that effects schools not just in our District 1, but throughout the County.
Before I give you an update of some key issues that I have been working on, I want to clarify that serving on a school Board is not the same as working within an organization or simply being a member of a group. To be efficient, and per the charter, the group has to operate as a unit. Specifically, Board policies and procedures state that the Board Chair shall generally serve as the official spokesperson for the Board. Out of respect for this long-standing policy, I have not made official statements on behalf of the Board regarding personnel matters, nor will I.
I know you will be disappointed to hear what you already know – that I cannot and will not be discussing personnel matters, because personnel matters must be treated with the highest level of confidentiality. However, I do want to acknowledge the frustration with the lack of continuity of leadership in DeKalb County School District. Part of this frustration is because there has only been one perspective that has been given, and that is the perspective given by our former superintendent.
Please rest assured, her termination was not a knee-jerk reaction that happened overnight.
This Board sat down with the Superintendent on repeated occasions to discuss the unmet needs, and I was hopeful there would be resolution. When I got to the point I didn’t see improvement necessary for our students and facilities, I felt it was time.
I can also assure you more information will be forthcoming.
I would now like to provide an update on some key areas of from the past 16 months of my term.
Before I start, I want to warn everyone that I’m going to try and not move into “accountant-speak” and use too many terms or abbreviations. Much of what I’ve worked on during the past 16 months is technical and confusing enough. My training as a forensic accountant and former certified fraud examiner fills my vocabulary with lots of terms that are not helpful unless you’re on a witness stand so I’m going to try and make this as free of jargon as I can.
Thank you for your patience in advance because we have to go into the weeds a little bit.
The first issue I want to discuss is ADA non-compliance across the entire District. Just a few months into my term, I became concerned about the liability related to the numerous non-compliance issues identified in the Perkins & Will Facility Condition Assessments (FCAs.)
As you probably know, the ADA – American’s with Disabilities Act – was enacted in the early 90’s with the goal of ensuring that those who suffer disabilities are allowed equal accommodated access to both employment and education.
In spring 2021, I spent the better part of two months reading through the FCAs and then an entire weekend leafing through thousands of pages in the FCAs to manually enter ADA non-compliance costs from the FCAs into excel to quantify the magnitude of the non-compliance. As an accountant, spreadsheets help me to translate long planning documents into workable plans.
I was slightly relieved to learn the cost to remedy the ADA Non-Compliance issues across the entire district was about $7.5m. Although a high number, this seemed solvable, especially with a budget of over $2B and millions in SPLOST funding available.
Even though this seems like a fixable problem, it is a shame we are in this state in the first place. Sadly, the school with the highest cost of ADA Non-Compliance repair needs across the entire county is one of our District 1 schools – Oakcliff Theme Elementary school in Doraville at over $1M. Sequoyah MS is in the top 10 at $212k.
I was, and am, deeply concerned about all schools across the School District that have ADA Non-Compliance issues. I told the Superintendent early on we could not ignore this and especially those communities who might not know how to even express concern. I pleaded with the superintendent to address these access issues as soon as possible, and I used my vote as my voice. I voted against certain items that were “wants” until we could address true “needs” – and I think ensuring equal access to those with disabilities is a true need. On multiple occasions, I encouraged the Superintendent to please prioritize ADA Non-Compliance repairs.
I have been in this role for 16 months, and despite repeated emails, requests at BoE meetings, and one-on-one conversations with the Superintendent, there have been very few results.
To date, the E-SPLOST-V adjustment list still does not include ADA repairs in Region 1. Until that occurs, we have no assurances that DCSD is taking action.
I will continue to fight for the students across District 1 and the entire school district to ensure those who depend on the Federally-required access ADA provides are granted those accommodations.
The second issue that I became curious about at the beginning of my term was the accuracy of financial reporting related to SPLOST IV and V, especially as it relates to the differences between the Program Manager reporting and the DeKalb County School District reporting.
A SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) program authorizes the collection of a penny sales tax on any purchases that are taxed in DeKalb County. Monies collected can be used to pay for necessary capital improvements including building improvements, new schools, classroom additions, technology, and transportation needs
My professional experience told me that it would be prudent for the Superintendent to undertake an independent 3rd party review of SPLOST accounting.
At the June 2021 BoE meeting, Mr. Estill, former COO of DeKalb County School District announced he’d hired a CPA to address this issue, and I was thrilled.
As last summer progressed, I waited anxiously for the results in hopes that it would be completed well before the Board needed to vote to ask DeKalb voters to approve SPLOST VI in November 2021. However, the vote came before the board and the SPLOST reconciliation work had still not been completed. Before the Board vote to place SPLOST VI on the ballot, I asked the Superintendent if the CPAs work would at least be completed before taxpayers voted in November. She assured me that it would be completed and would also be shared with the public before the November election.
I trusted her at her word and voted yes to place SPLOST VI on the November 2021 ballot.
However, as summer turned into fall and we started another school year, I grew concerned because the Superintendent had provided only a preliminary report to the BOE via minisessions. Nothing had been shared with the public as promised, and the work was not complete. As a side note, in the interest of transparency, I would prefer the Board not have minissessions, but that is another issue for another day.
Because of my growing concern, I emailed the Superintendent, Chief of Staff and Board President on August 17 and expressed apprehension about needing a SPLOST reconciliation and concern that the ADA Non-Compliance issues were still not scheduled for correction.
I also wrote to the superintendent: We cannot ask the taxpayers for money already collected and committed to for projects, and when the projects were not completed (or the scope changed) re-ask for the same funding again.
I said to the Superintendent:
I will not be a part of any taxpayer double-dipping on the part of DCSD.
Here’s one small example. The Ashford Park Elementary scope of work per the contractor (AECOM) reported that on March 30, 2020, there was a completed “turn key, fully functional fire suppression system, meeting all code requirements for educational facilities.”
However, the April 15, 2021 FCA states that the school needed Emergency Exit Signage Replacement, Fire Alarm Replacement and Wall Pack Lighting Replacement.
I asked the Superintendent these questions:
Does this mean that between March 31, 2020 and April 15, 2021, the turn key fully functional fire suppression system that met all code requirements in March 2020 no longer meets code requirements in April 2021?
Or does this mean that there are new needs that arose between these two dates?
Or does this mean that the fire suppression system was not completed as stated in the AECOM reports?
Or does this mean the FCA is inaccurate?
I made a final re-request of the Superintendent:
Please let me know if you are planning to undertake this reconciliation and/or if it is already underway. This is crucial for the DCSD taxpayers and BoE SPLOST VI planning, and November is not far away. Also, what is the status of the plan to address the ADA non-compliance Mission Critical items?
I concluded by saying to her:
I am deeply concerned about all of this, and I hope there are plans in the works now to resolve this situation. Superintendent, I know you did not create this, but unfortunately you are now tasked with cleaning it up, and for your efforts I am grateful.
As the election season grew closer, there was finally a meeting with the CFO, the Superintendent, Board Chair, the CPA, and me to discuss her ESPLOST reconciliation work.
On August 27, I sent Mrs. Watson-Harris an email about that meeting – I expressed appreciation that some work had been completed, but also expressed concerns that still, with election day fast approaching, there were no conclusions drawn on the reconciliation issue, which I had been asking about for many, many months.
I also asked the following of the Superintendent:
The CPA mentioned a mea culpa DCSD would need to consider; can you please provide information about the status of the mea culpa?
The CPA gave an estimate of about $250m (or more) reconciliation difference last Monday. It was my hope that upon conclusion of her work, she would determine that the number was immaterial (which would also remove the obligation of DCSD on #1; the mea culpa) but I doubt that is the reality. As you recall, she indicated in her professional experience, DCSD is a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1-10 of this being a serious issue of concern.
The Superintendent did acknowledge a shared concern about both items, but she said nothing about these issues at the September 13, 2021 BoE meeting.
On October 12, advanced voting began; advanced voting ended on October 29 for the November 2, 2021 election. Two days before advanced voting ended, on October 27, 2011, the CPA finally made a presentation to the public at the Esplost Advisory Committee meeting. I was disappointed this didn’t happen prior to the start of advanced voting, but I was relieved it was happening before election day.
The CPA explained that part of her work was to determine if there was a variance between the school district’s accounting programs (MUNIS) and AECOM’s reporting (Proliance.) AECOM is the SPLOST Program Manager and PROLIANCE is their reporting tool. It is important to note that some reporting differences are expected.
Mr. Boyd, the interim COO, explained in that meeting, “Proliance was never intended to be an accounting tool; it is a project update tool.”
While I agree with Mr. Boyd’s statement, responsible financial management tells us that the differences between the two systems should be quantified and understood.
I was disappointed that the presentation to the public at the Esplost Advisory Committee meeting did not provide the same details to the public that the Board was aware of from their minisessions.
Details of what I knew, that was not shared with the public, was the following:
SPLOST IV – MUNIS is greater than PROLIANCE by $129M
SPLOST V – MUNIS is greater than PROLIANCE by $150M
To be clear, *some* difference is expected. However, there are some construction-related differences that are unexplained, and as a trustee of public funds, those concern me.
SPLOST IV Construction and Program Related variances are 29% of the overall variance of $37M.
Related to District 1, Chamblee HS has a variance of $12.7M: (MUNIS is $48.7M and Proliance is $36M.)
SPLOST V Construction and Program Related variances are 17% of the overall variance at $25.4M. Related to District 1, Doraville United ES has a variance of $8.5M: (MUNIS is $38M and Proliance is $29.5M.)
The CPA conclude in her report which was not shared with the public:
It is my opinion that the gaps in Expenditures between Proliance and MUNIS for Construction-related Projects – where every invoice is reviewed by staff of AECOM before it is paid – is too high to be able to place reliance on the accuracy of Proliance for reports regarding Expenditures on Construction efforts.
The variances have been known to exist for a very long time. If the growing variance between Expenditures as reporting by MUNIS vs Proliance could not be repaired, it should have been stated to DCSD that the Actuals being reported could not be brought into balance with MUNIS, so that together, AECOM and DCSD staff could devise a plan to use MUNIS or find another method of accurately reporting Expenditures, so that the reporting variance on Actuals did not grow to the present $280Mil.
As a Board of Education representative and as a taxpayer, these differences concern me and the lack of resolving these differences over a reasonable period of time also concerns me.
I do not know what conclusion we can draw from these differences, but I wonder if this means funds were overspent? Or is this a simple case of sloppy accounting that just needs to be cleaned up? Or could this be normal timing differences between two systems that simply need to be explained with transparency?
The result of all of this is that as of Monday, October 25, I believed there was still a great deal of work to do. I was concerned from both a liability perspective and a financial accountability perspective.
Because of the potential liability and because of the responsibility of BoE members as trustees of public funds, I asked my colleagues on the BoE if they thought it would be prudent for DCSD to initiate an independent 3rd party review of ESPLOST. All 7 of us were in agreement.
Because day-to-day operations are Superintendent’s responsibility and being a trustee of public funds is the responsibility of the Board, there was an overlap of duty, but ultimately, only Mrs. Watson-Harris could ask operations to issue an RFP for an independent 3rd Party Review of SPLOST funds.
After numerous phone calls, emails, in person meetings and discussions which began last fall, finally, on April 14, 2022, 6 months later, Mrs. Watson-Harris’ team issued an RFP for the independent 3rd party review of SPLOST IV and V.
While it was not reasonable to expect an RFP to be issued immediately once the CPA identified these differences, I do not think 6 months is a reasonable period of time for something this critical, especially because I was told this would all be resolved prior to the November SPLOST vote, and because the construction-related variances are over $60M. Total variances are hundreds of millions of dollars
This is not an immaterial amount of money and as of today’s date, May 1, it is still unresolved.
At this point, I want to make a final point, and appreciate your patience until now.
I will read a few excerpts of my statement I made at the April 18 BoE meeting to clear up some misunderstandings:
Board Policy ABB identifies 11 Duties and Powers; #11 states that BoE Members must:
Work with the Superintendent to ensure that adequate facilities are available to educate all students in the District.
Although “adequate”” is not defined in the policy, I believe we can all agree that adequate means, at a minimum, ensuring a school’s ability to remain open. This includes ensuring building safety and code compliance, the repair of severely damaged and failing building components and other items that require near-term correction.
To our students at Druid Hills High School – The good news is that by remedying the deficiencies identified by our experts, Perkins & Will in the Druid Hills High School FCA, every single concern you have identified in your video (and more) will be resolved.
I believe you, and the public, have been done a disservice by being led to believe that only modernization would remedy these deficiencies; however, that is not the case. In fact, our experts have quantified the cost for priority 1 deficiency repairs at Druid Hills High School as $3,590. And, for those who don’t know, the total for all Priorities for DHHS is $6.4m.
Just for the sake of perspective, at $6.4m in deficiency repairs, your school is not among the top 20 highest need schools.
For those who are curious, here are the top 3 schools with highest total deficiency repair needs:
Stephenson Middle – $17.7m
Columbia HS – $14.8m
Chapel Hill MS – $14.7m
I do not want to minimize how you feel because it matters and is important, and so I would like to say this:
Townes – thank you for pointing out the unacceptable plumbing problem and sewer leakage issues. These deficiencies are part of the FCA (Priority 3) and are described by Perkins and Will as:
“Plumbing/Domestic water piping system beyond its useful life
A need for sanity sewer piping replacement.”
I firmly believe these should be addressed as soon as possible as part of a Priority 1 remediation plan as opposed to waiting for Priority 3 deficiencies to be addressed.
This is a serious deficiency at many schools and we should address any sewage problems at all schools immediately, so thank you for making the BoE aware of this problem. You are leading by example, and by voicing a concern at your school, it is also going to draw attention to similar needs that exist at other schools.
To be clear, we need to work through as many of the deficiencies as we can afford at ALL schools; not just because the policy states BoE members must ensure adequate facilities for all students, but also because it’s the right thing to do.
Students you said: “Safety is the #1 word we are saying.”
I am saying the word safety also, and this is why it is imperative we address the Priority 1 mission crucial deficiencies across the district as soon as possible. I say across the district, because as a Board, it is our responsibility to consider the whole district and not just one school.
(This is the end of the excerpts from my statement.)
The BOE’s role is to set policy and provide clear directives for the Superintendent and her staff to carry out. The day-to-day maintenance – both repair and preventive – is solely the role of the Superintendent and her staff. BOE members cannot call out a plumber if a principal calls with a leaking toilet. But, the Superintendent can and is empowered to do that. BOE members cannot hire backhoe operating to clear an overgrown non-functioning detention pond. But, the Superintendent can and is empowered to do that. And, the BOE members call out an electrician to fix exposed wiring, but most certainly the Superintendent can.
That is something the BOE has now learned needs to be a constant reminder for Central Office Leadership.
Thank you for indulging me in one last point of clarification. Prior to the most recent BoE meeting on April 18, on Saturday, April 16, Chair Turner sent an email to Superintendent Watson-Harris, which I was copied on, and reads in part:
Good Morning Superintendent
I see that you are up early and generating emails. I am hoping that we can have a brief discussion today as we are preparing for Monday’s meeting. I attempted two unsuccessful calls to you on yesterday (leaving a message on both your phones)…..Please advise of your availability this weekend.
The next day, Sunday, April 17, at 11:22 am, Mrs. Watson-Harris responded, and said in part:
Dear BOE Chair Turner:
Thank you for your attempt to include me in your discussion on “funding projects” this weekend.
I am confident that you will have a successful proposal to present to the entire BOE tomorrow during the meeting.
As a result of Mrs. Watson-Harris’ confidence and encouragement, I did as she instructed and moved forward by presenting the proposal to the entire Board.
It is confusing to me that she has said on numerous occasions she did not know about it because not only did she know about it, she refused to meet with me and Chair Turner to discuss it and instead expressed confidence that it would be a successful proposal presented to the entire Board.
I would like to wrap up by summarizing where we are now.
I am deeply concerned about ADA Non-Compliance issues that have been known since at least April 2021, and
I am deeply concerned about millions of dollars of construction-related esplost variances from SPLOST IV and V that were not remedied in a reasonable period of time.
And, I am disappointed that the superintendent was unwilling to join discussions about funding projects and showed no sense of urgency when it came to resolving important ADA issues and other issues involving the facilities that are the second home to our children.
I am heartened to see how many of my fellow elected officials are expressing a clear and concise desire to work directly with the BOE to bring about meaningful progress in corrected the inequities in our facilities – specifically in the areas of maintenance and ADA compliance.
With the exception of two people, I am disappointed that not a single elected official initiated contact with me after the termination meeting on Tuesday, April 26. Thank you Rebekah Cohen Morris and Andy Yoeman of Doraville. Rebekah – I have not had an opportunity to speak with you but will reach out tomorrow.
Having said that, I am thankful for those who have answered my calls after April 26. I wish we could have spoken before you decried the board’s actions. One Mayor in particular asked for resignation on Facebook, of all places. We are having breakfast tomorrow morning and I look forward to talking with you. I do forgive and will move on for the sake of the students and taxpayers.
This disconnect shows me there is work to do, and I am here to do it. For too long DCSD operated in a vacuum. As a constituent said to me today – People are disturbed the termination of our former Superintendent, but they seem entirely undisturbed by the ongoing issues of great concern to those of us who have been paying attention and calling for improvements for years: ineffective administration, financial concerns, stagnant or declining student achievement, overcrowded and unsafe schools, teacher performance, morale, and retention, truancy and underserved schools, and the neglect and atrocious conditions in half of our facilities.
It is important that other government entities understand that educating the children of DeKalb takes all stakeholders to come to the table. Be it Federal, State, County or Municipal leadership Although I cannot speak for my colleagues on the Board, welcomes the assistance in creating stability and accountability for our DeKalb County Students and taxpayers once and for all.
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