ATLANTA — A day after the DeKalb County School Board voted to terminate Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris' contract, top county officials were split on whether the state should open an investigation into recent actions taken by the board.
"I saw it coming a long time ago," State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D - Decatur) told 11Alive Wednesday of Watson-Harris' termination. "There has been concerns that several board members have expressed to me in the past about some of her actions."
Jones said through regular meetings with DeKalb County Board of Education members, he learned the board and Watson-Harris often disagreed on issues the school district was facing.
In early April a student-produced video showed filthy and dangerous conditions inside Druid Hills High School. The video went viral online and led to State School Superintendent Richard Woods writing a letter to the district, scolding the administration over a lack of plans to address needed repairs, and threatening to hold up state funds to the district.
It was the final straw leading to Watson-Harris' termination, according to Jones, but he also had come to learn her time as superintendent appeared limited.
"I heard it from a good source that she had already been notified that her 3-year contract wasn't going to be renewed. She was in the final year of her contract. Essentially, what the board did was buy out the remainder of her time," he said.
The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that DeKalb County Schools are now likely to have to pay Watson-Harris $380,000 for the 14-months remaining on her contract, which was set to expire in 2023.
After Watson-Harris was fired, State Sen. Elana Parent (D - Atlanta), who like Jones represents DeKalb County - including the Druid Hills area, wrote a letter to Governor Brian Kemp and Woods. In the letter, she raised concerns about recent actions and decisions made by the school board.
She called on Kemp and Woods to open an investigation, "...to ensure that decisions are being made that are in the best interest of the students."
11Alive contacted Gov. Kemp's staff and asked about the letter sent by Parent.
He released the following statement in response: 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, and as Governor of the State of Georgia, I take very seriously my job to advocate for all Georgia citizens – especially our most valuable resource, our students. My office will remain in close communication with the Georgia Department of Education on these issues to determine what further action is needed.
Woods office sent 11Alive a letter he sent to Parent in response to her letter. He wrote that he had sent his concerns and Parent's letter to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and added that he is "...committed to taking any further action, as necessary, based on direction and guidance from the Attorney General's Office."
Unlike Parent, Jones isn't advocating for the state to intervene at this time.
"I am not, I think it is too premature to make any of those kinds of calls," Jones said. "I would hope that our state school superintendent would stand down and certainly our governor as well. This could potentially be a hyper-partisan crusade and I don't think anyone in DeKalb County or the state of Georgia wants to see that. We just need to get answers ourselves from our school board members. We have had a great working relationship with our school board members and I think once we have that conversation, perhaps some of our fears and concerns can be set aside."
DeKalb County CEO, and former DeKalb County Schools Superintendent, Michael Thurmond told 11Alive in an interview Wednesday he also believes, at this time, the issues at hand should be handled by the county.
"I don't think we need state intervention," Thurmond said. "We need the people elected and appointed to really be more thoughtful and inclusive in the decision-making process. I don't think it has reached that point where we need state intervention, but I'm encouraging our leaders at the school district to pay attention and not jeopardize the future of the school district and or the county."
Thurmond worked as the district's superintendent from 2013 to 2015, helped turn around the district's finances, and fought off threats to its accreditation.