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DeKalb Schools superintendent pushed for central office reorganization before school board fired her

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DeKalb Schools superintendent pushed for central office reorganization before school board fired her

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris handed out book bags during the 37th annual DeKalb County Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and food distribution event at James R. Hallford Stadium on Jan. 18, 2021. 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

This story has been updated. 

DeKalb County, GA — Late last year, former superintendent Cheryl 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. It’s not clear if that plan will ever be implemented.

It’s also not clear if that plan was a factor in the DeKalb School Board’s decision to fire Watson-Harris on April 26.

The key component of the plan was changing from the district’s current seven regional superintendents to five superintendents organized by grade level.

“I started talking with [the board] about a potential reorganization in late October, or early November [2021],” Watson-Harris said. “Things seemed to be going well. We had a small team working on it. I was keeping it tight to the chest. At that point, I was going to have people reapply for their jobs, primarily the regional superintendents. My goal was to make it cost-neutral, so people in the central office would be moved to the field and placed in positions closer to the schoolhouse. My goal was to trim the fat at the central office and move support personnel closer to schools.”

She communicated the plan with each board member individually and said it seemed most members were supportive. The plan was research-based, she said.

“This wasn’t going to be a haphazard thing,” Watson-Harris said.

She met with the board in December and planned to continue the discussions after the holiday break. But Board Chair Vickie Turner began pumping the brakes on the discussion, Watson-Harris said.

“At the time everyone seemed on board, then Mrs. Turner — February was when I was supposed to make the announcement to the staff and begin the implementation of the plan — and Ms. Turner said, ‘hold off,'” Watson-Harris said. “She did this two or three times. She would say, ‘Let’s schedule a time for you to talk about this with the board. It would go better for you that way,’ and every time we did that, I was beat up by the board.”

Watson-Harris learned that some of her senior cabinet members were approaching board members directly about her plans.

“As I was speaking to the board, they were pushing back on [people] reapplying and things like that,” Watson-Harris said. “And what I was told was that there were also some senior cabinet members who were speaking to the board, the ones who have been there for a long time because they felt threatened by the increased accountability.”

Turner asked for the presentation in a closed-door executive session. While executive sessions can be used to discuss personnel issues, Watson-Harris questioned whether this was an appropriate use of an executive session.

The executive session occurred in March. She brought members of her team with her to the presentation. Due to board feedback, the plan had been watered down by this point, Watson-Harris said, and was “not as aggressive as the original plan.”

“So, we had the meeting, we did the presentation which was excellent and then Ms. Turner told the staff to leave and then  [Board member Allyson] Gevertz said, ‘Why is the staff leaving when we’re about to enter into questions and answers?’ Ms. Turner said, ‘The superintendent is more than qualified to answer the questions.’,” Watson-Harris recalled.

Watson-Harris said Turner’s real purpose in dismissing the rest of Watson-Harris’ team was Turner’s desire to rake her over the coals about the plan.

“This isn’t the time”

Board member Anna Hill began criticizing the presentation, and Turner said it “this isn’t the time” for a change to central office. Dr. Joyce Morley said the plan “reeks of a charter school system.” Board member Diijon DaCosta said nothing, Watson-Harris said, but board members Gevertz, Marshall Orson and Deirdre Pierce were supportive, which was confirmed by Orson and Gevertz.

“My response was positive,” Gevertz said. “It was all research-based. It was centered on meeting the needs in the classroom and pushing supports closer to the classroom, I’m not surprised there might have been some resistance to that, given it would’ve changed some of the structure for some of the people who are in positions now who would have been reapplying or reevaluated for positions that were more grade level focused.”

Board members, including Turner, Morley and DaCosta, have not responded to messages about the reorganization plan or whether it was a factor in their decision to fire Watson-Harris. Hill declined to comment, but later posted slides from Watson-Harris’ presentation about the reorganization plan on her official Facebook page.

Watson-Harris said she didn’t think the board had to approve the restructuring, but the board would be approving her hires for the new positions as part of the reorganization plan. 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.

Watson-Harris said the plan was intended to address the perception that the district’s central office is staffed based on who you know and not what you know, sometimes referred to as a “friends and family policy” by critics of the district.

“This directly addresses this perception of friends and family because we’re going to have a rigorous process,” Watson-Harris said.

She said she was deflated by the board’s reaction, but decided to work on the parts of the plan she could control.

The status quo

She said the plan would not have affected the relatives of two board members that work for DeKalb County Schools. Victoria Turner, daughter of School Board Chair Vickie Turner, works for the district as a parent facilitator. She started with the district in December 2018. Her mother was elected to the school board in 2014.  Tiijon DaCosta, the brother of school board member Diijon DaCosta, currently works as a transportation specialist in the school district. He started work for the district in January 2015, before his brother was elected in 2018.

Watson-Harris said while her reorganization plan would not have affected Turner’s daughter or DaCosta’s brother, she said when she was first hired in 2020, Board Chair Turner did contact her about an issue involving her daughter. Watson-Harris tried to do a central office reorganization at the time, and Turner’s daughter would’ve been moved. Turner asked Watson-Harris not to move her daughter.

“I told her I could not get involved in that,” Watson-Harris said.

Watson-Harris said she did not think Board Chair Turner’s call was appropriate. She said as far as she knows, no other current school board members have relatives working for the district. A spokesperson for the school district has not responded to a question from Decaturish about whether there are other relatives of school board members employed by DeKalb County Schools.

When asked why some board members were resistant to her attempts to change the district’s central office, Watson-Harris said her plan challenged the “status quo.”

But why did these board members care about preserving the status quo?

“I believe because it makes it easier to control what’s happening in the system,” Watson-Harris said.

Decaturish asked if she thought the reorganization efforts were the reason the board fired her.

“I think the fact that I was trying to make changes that pushed against the status quo and added levels of accountability that weren’t there before made a lot of people uncomfortable,” Watson-Harris said. “I think the people who were uncomfortable used their influence to get the board not to support it and, as a result, further wedged the relationship between myself and at least three of the board members.”

She thinks the board’s decision to fire her was ultimately to distract the public from the controversy surrounding safe and unsanitary conditions at Druid Hills High. The state currently has given the school board until June 1 to add the school’s modernization project at the school back into its facilities plan after board members repeatedly excluded it.

“I think what pushed them to terminate me at the time they did was I believe was to create a diversion from all of the heat they were getting,” Watson-Harris said. “That was my honest opinion.”

Investigative reporting by Decaturish has revealed there was more going on behind the scenes. 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.

Does Watson-Harris think that investigation had something to do with her reorganization plan?

“I can’t really see a direct correlation there,” Watson-Harris said. She said board members were looking for a pretext to fire her and hoped the investigation would give them one.

“It’s throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing which one of these things stick,” Watson-Harris said.

To see the PowerPoint presentation on the reorganization plan, click here. To see a white paper Watson-Harris wrote about the new plan, click here.

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