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Gov. Kemp, leaders respond to shake-up in DeKalb County School District

“I am highly concerned that these serious issues in DeKalb County could be a result of a school system choosing politics over students, families, and educators.”
Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 6:52 PM EDT
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DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. (CBS46) - The DeKalb County School District introduced a new, temporary superintendent Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the ouster of former superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.

Calling for change, DeKalb County School Board Chair Vickie Turner and select members of the Board of Education welcomed Dr. Vasannne Tinsley as interim superintendent. Turner said the change was solely about putting children first.

RELATED: Parent blasts DeKalb County school board after it fired the superintendent

“This is not a political thing,” said Turner. “This is about a humanity thing and humanity is about our next generation.”

“I’m here for the challenge, and I’m here as I need to be in the interim to make things work for the students and staff and community of DeKalb,” added Tinsley.

Tinsley, who retired from the district in 2020 after 25 years of service, steps into her new role as school leaders face scrutiny over recent decisions related to school renovations.

“You’ve been hearing about one school but unfortunately, we have over 135 buildings and all of those buildings require attention, and we implemented change because we are getting ready to do some work in our schools,” Turner told reporters during a press conference.

RELATED: DeKalb County Board of Education responds to criticism over Druid Hills renovation plan

On Tuesday, a day after the state superintendent Ricard Woods blasted the board over its handling of conditions at Druid Hills High, members of the school board voted 4-1 to fire Watson-Harris. Deirdre Pierce voted no. Board members, Allyson Gevertz and Marshall Orson, were absent due to a scheduling conflict.

Harris-Watson said she was blindsided by the decision.

“I haven’t heard from anyone who thinks this move was a good idea, and I’m talking about across all of DeKalb County,” said State Senator Elena Parent, a Democrat who represents DeKalb County.

Parents sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp and Superintendent Woods on Wednesday, asking for respective investigations into recent “hasty” decisions by the board. She said she’s not calling for members to be removed but she wants the Gov. to keep an eye on the situation.

“Things are moving so rapidly, and they give a public perception of a system spiraling out of control with need for oversight,” Parent said. “They seem to be taking actions that are not thoughtfully considered.”

Gov. Kemp released the following statement in response to Parent’s letter:

Supt. Woods called the firing of Watson-Harris “a step backward.”

“As stated in my April 24 letter to DeKalb County Board of Education, the Department of Education’s facilities team will work with DeKalb County Schools to develop immediate, short-term, and long-term plans for corrective action regarding facilities issues in the district,” Woods in response to Parent’s letter.

“If the district does not fully follow through on this plan, I will not recommend DeKalb County Schools’ facilities plan for State Board of Education approval and the district will not have access to state facilities funding.”

The DeKalb County NAACP president Lance Hammonds blasted the school board for the decision he called ‘erratic.’”

“Our school district needs to take accountability,” Hammonds told CBS46. “Cheryl Watson-Harris is not responsible for the turmoil at Druid Hills High School.”

The president of the DeKalb County branch of the NAACP wrote this letter blasting the 7-person school board for the hasty decision.

“Our problem with this school board is we’ve got to stop the revolving door of superintendents,” Hammonds explained.

He said the board has gone through 10 superintendents in the last 25 years, including Johnny Brown, who resigned abruptly; an embattled Crawford Lewis; Cheryl Atkinson, Michael Thurmond, Ramona Tyson who served as interim twice; then Steven Green who left in 2019; and Rudy Crew who sued the district last year for $750,000 dollars claiming discrimination after being the sole finalist, but then not getting the job as the district decided in a surprise move to bring on Watson Harris instead. Now, Watson-Harris has been fired and Dr. Vasanne Tinsley was sworn in Wednesday.

“It shows the ineptness of our school board,” Hammonds said. “If you made the decision to hire this lady, Watson-Harris and then two years later… Did you make a mistake two years ago? They should’ve stayed with her through this process and make sure this was done right.”

At a state of DeKalb County event, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond made fiery remarks to the board from the stage when speaking about the controversy.

“It’s not about a superintendent. It’s not about a school board. It’s about the almost 100,000 children,” Thurmond said.

Thurmond is a former DeKalb County school superintendent brought on to stabilize the district as it was about to lose its accreditation.

“I was so angry. We almost lost the DeKalb County School District because of what grown folks were doing on a school board,” Thurmond said pausing. “Enough!”

Hammonds said the quick decisions hurt academics overall.

“I would charge them to hire this superintendent back or do a better job hiring superintendents in the future,” he said.

School board members who voted for the ouster stood by their decision Wednesday afternoon.

According to the Associated Press, the district will most likely have to pay the remaining 14 months of Watson-Harris’ contract, which is about $380,000.