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Editorial: Superintendent drama shows need for reforming DeKalb School Board

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Editorial: Superintendent drama shows need for reforming DeKalb School Board

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

This editorial has been updated.

The DeKalb County Board of Education is an institution in dire need of reform, which can only happen when the county’s political and business leaders demand it.

When will that happen? Or, more importantly, what exactly has to happen before our community takes long-overdue steps to overhaul the leadership of the DeKalb County School District?

There’s plenty of evidence that changes are needed. Cognia, a nonprofit accreditation organization, is monitoring the dysfunction of the school board. Test scores are continuing to decline, and so is enrollment. The superintendent’s job has become a revolving door. People seldom stay on the job long enough to make any measurable impact. Those facts alone should be enough to rally our county’s leaders. They should take charge and urgently move to fix this broken district through legislative and electoral means.

Until that happens, the district will continue to deteriorate.

DeKalb School Board members repeatedly demonstrate that they would rather pursue personal interests at the expense of our district’s students. This board’s shortcomings have predictably led to a controversial choice for the district’s next superintendent: Dr. Devon Horton, who will replace interim Superintendent Dr. Vasanne Tinsley, assuming his candidacy can survive the state-mandated 14-day waiting period.

Dr. Horton is a deeply flawed candidate, but one we will tentatively support for reasons we’ll explain shortly. We all know he won’t last long, even if he’s ultimately hired. Barring some epiphany among certain school board members, we can expect he’ll use this job to lobby for something better in the near future if the board can’t succeed in firing him first. It’s a pity that the man will start the job knowing he probably won’t last two years, but such is the nature of this ridiculous school district.

Our school board is already taking steps to undermine their own finalist, which means we can expect, at a minimum, a divided vote.

Did you see the recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about this?

The headline: “DeKalb County school board split on best choice for superintendent”

It won’t shock anyone to hear that the primary source for that article is School Board Member Dr. Joyce Morley, who, as we’ve discussed in a prior editorial, is one of the primary contributors to the school board’s present dysfunction.

Fun fact: Dr. Morley dishing to the AJC was most likely a violation of the district’s ethics code. The code states that board members are required to, “Maintain the confidentiality of all discussions and other matters pertaining to the Board and the School District, during executive session of the Board.” A serious school board would hold her accountable for her ethical lapse, but we won’t hold our breath or waste our time advocating for this board to follow its own rules.

Given how the board undermines its own candidates, is it any surprise that there was little interest from truly stellar candidates in working for this school board?

Even to the most casual observers of the school board, the split itself is not shocking. From the beginning, certain school board members attempted to position Dr. Tinsley as the heir apparent before a superintendent search even began. Dr. Tinsley’s appointment was the result of a dubious bargain made between members of the board to fire Cheryl Watson-Harris.

While Decaturish does not have any inside knowledge about how the split on Dr. Horton breaks down, it’s easy to deduce, by following the available evidence. There are at least four members who want to hire Dr. Horton, or he wouldn’t have made it this far. A safe guess is that he has the support of Allyson Gevertz, Anna Hill, Whitney McGinnis and Deirdre Pierce. Dr. Morley publicly made clear where she stands. Board member Vickie Turner was on record early on supporting Dr. Tinsley. Board Chair Diijon DaCosta is quoted in a recent press release as saying Dr. Horton has an “impressive track record” among other niceties. Could he be a fifth vote as well? It stands to reason, but reason seldom factors into anything this board does.

Note: After this editorial was published, the board voted 6-1 to hire Horton. Morley was the only board member to vote “no.” 

So, what kind of candidate is Dr. Horton? Well, to put it bluntly, not a great one. However, we still believe he’s better than the alternative. Before we get to the why, let’s start unpacking the baggage he brings to the job.

Dr. Horton is currently in charge of a district that’s much smaller than DeKalb County Schools, with about 7,300 students (by our count) and no high schools. (A more recent estimate puts the enrollment closer to 6,000 students.) Compare that with DeKalb County Schools’ 92,000 students, and it’s easy to see why his experience would concern people. The board counters that he previously served as Chief of Schools in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, which has about 101,000 students. Still, this will be the first time Dr. Horton has managed a district as large as DeKalb County as a superintendent, so there is an assumed learning curve. That is probably the least problematic thing on his resume.

He’s faced criticism for his equity work. At Decaturish, we believe that all students should be treated fairly and that all students should have the same academic opportunities. Where achievement gaps exist, they should be corrected without delay or excuses. It’s a goal that Dr. Horton shares, but his execution leaves something to be desired. In 2021, Dr. Horton said parents pushing to reopen schools were advocating for it in a way that is “rooted in white supremacy.” Earlier reports characterized him calling parents who wanted in-person learning as “white supremacists.” It is easy, at this remove, to forget how emotional and contentious the school reopening debate was. Even so, Dr. Horton’s response is troubling and would not fly here in this racially polarized district.

If you were to conduct a poll, we suspect you’d find the majority of parents here support equity as a stated goal of the district. It is our hope that Dr. Horton would not dismiss his critics so casually and would think carefully before sending an email that might be misconstrued. We hope he will engage in good faith discussions with his critics and seek collaborative solutions.

Dr. Horton is also the subject of a lawsuit over the district’s anti-racist training initiatives for staff. We don’t have much to add to this, other than to say that superintendents get sued frequently, and we’d rather a superintendent err on the side of equity than err on the side of preserving unequal outcomes.

Of more concern are accusations by a Substack publisher in Evanston, Ill. that Dr. Horton steered no-bid contracts to business partners. We have not verified the information in this story, but the article is making the rounds, and it’s something Dr. Horton should publicly address.  We hope that the school board properly investigated this and received answers that made them feel comfortable with the situation. Still, more information and a direct response from Dr. Horton would be helpful.

That’s a quick summary of the controversies surrounding Dr. Horton. So, why, after this recitation of Dr. Horton’s flaws, would we support him as DeKalb’s next superintendent?

The answer is because he’s not connected in any way to DeKalb County Schools. This school district will never be reformed from within. That’s not how it works here. With that understanding, we can’t see any scenario where Dr. Tinsley will make the kinds of changes needed to move the district forward. Dr. Tinsley is an insider at DeKalb County Schools. She’s worked for the district for 28 years. She has no incentive to change the status quo, and plenty of incentives to keep things just the way they are, particularly when relatives of two school board members work for the district. Those two school board members were instrumental in hiring her.

Cheryl Watson-Harris, the previous superintendent, was not perfect, but she was trying to change the way things operated. It’s unfortunate she was not given a chance to succeed. But here we are.

Will Dr. Horton succeed where Watson-Harris failed? Given how this school board churns through superintendents, probably not, but we’d rather see him try and fail than maintain the status quo.

This superintendent search reminds us that we should all be honest with ourselves about the state this school district is in. Changing superintendents won’t solve our problems. We are headed in the wrong direction and the only thing that will stop it is a course correction that can only come from our political leadership, specifically our Legislative delegation.

This school board needs an overhaul. We would propose the following solutions.

1. Term limits. School board members should be able to serve no more than two consecutive terms.

2. Pay increases. School board members currently make $18,000 a year. This is absurd and limits the pool of people who would be interested in doing this job. School board members should be making at least as much as county commissioners, about $65,000 a year. This shouldn’t be seen as a reward for the current school board members. This should be seen as an incentive to attract better candidates to run for their seats.

3. Adding super districts. Like the DeKalb County Commission, the current school board needs two super districts. Like DeKalb County’s super districts, the school board’s super districts should divide the county in half vertically, north-to-south. That will hopefully bridge the north-versus-south divides that contribute in no small way to the current board’s disagreements. We need board members who will look at the needs of all students in this county, not just the needs of students in their districts.

These changes can only be approved by members of our Legislative delegation, and those delegation members should immediately begin studying possible ways to reform the DeKalb County Board of Education. Meanwhile, it would be prudent for the business and political leadership of DeKalb County to recruit qualified candidates to run in all open school board races for the foreseeable future. Flood each district with them. This part, the engagement of our civic leadership, matters far more than any changes that the Legislature can make. The hands-off approach of our county’s leaders is understandable. No one wants to get their hands dirty dealing with this mess. But by avoiding the hard work, they are creating a void filled by people who are far more interested in settling petty grievances than they are about the future of education in this county.

Education is the lifeblood of any community. It affects our economic prosperity and civic health. But it requires work. You get out of public schools what you put into them. And if you choose to put in nothing, well, you get weird results like a superintendent candidate that can only receive the most tepid endorsement from a local newspaper.

“Better than nothing,” “not as bad as it used to be,” and “good enough” aren’t answers that will cut it anymore. This school district has a $2 billion budget. There’s no good reason it can’t be the best of the best.

The only thing holding our school district back is us. How long are we going to stand in our own way?

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