Some local parent advocates are expressing caution and optimism about new DeKalb County School District superintendent finalist Cheryl Watson-Harris.
Watson-Harris was announced as the new finalist on June 4, starting a 14-day public input period where she will talk with community members and stakeholders before the Board of Education votes on the hire.
Bob Fiscella, chair of the Dunwoody High School Principal Advisory Council, said he just hopes the school board finally made the right decision after members rejected their previous finalist for superintendent last month.
“Maybe they lucked out and we’re going to have a good superintendent,” said Fiscella.
The district announced Rudolph “Rudy” Crew as the previous finalist, but his history of controversies and public outcry led the board to vote against hiring him.
For Board of Education District 1 candidates Anna Hill and Andrew Ziffer, the failed vote of the first finalist shows that the district should have more transparency in its decisions.
“I don’t understand why DeKalb County spent so much money on a search firm when the first contender had a series of issues that ultimately made the board decide not to hire this person,” Hill said.
However, both Hill and Ziffer are optimistic about Watson-Harris, who currently is second in command at the New York City Department of Education, a district that serves 1.1 million students. Board members said Watson-Harris’s experience in large, urban and diverse districts made her the perfect fit for DeKalb.
“I think this is world’s different from the process before,” Ziffer said. “I think they got it right this time, from what I can see.”
The District 1 candidates hope Watson-Harris addresses the financial issues and promotes fiscal responsibility, considering the county’s previous mishandling of funds.
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing school budget cuts across the country, Watson-Harris said the district’s budget is a major concern for her.
“My approach would definitely be making sure the supports and services closest to children are what’s protected, and then we can figure out the rest in terms of our strategic plan and priorities,” Watson-Harris said in a June 5 press conference.
Assuming she gets the position, her start date would be July 1, and Watson-Harris said her first steps will be listening to stakeholders as well as filling vacant positions after the budget is finalized.
“It’s important that we get the house in order, and that would be an immediate concern of mine,” Watson-Harris said.
Watson-Harris said she’s considered an “equity warrior” and feels passionate about giving all students the opportunity to succeed. With the protests about police violence and racism happening around the nation, Watson-Harris said this could be an opportunity to start a dialogue about implicit bias or restorative justice training.
“I would like to see how we can turn this tragedy into an opportunity to begin to have a much-needed conversation,” Watson-Harris said.
Fiscella and Ziffer also hope that she considers redistricting because of the overcrowding in North DeKalb schools.
However, Fiscella would have rather seen Superintendent Ramona Tyson stay in the position.
“[Tyson] is not afraid to get things done, and there’s going to be a learning curve for the new superintendent,” Fiscella said.
The District 1 candidates would also like to see some stability in district leadership and hope Watson-Harris stays in the position longer than a few years.
Watson-Harris said she plans to put her son in DeKalb public schools and has family in the area.
“One of the reasons I’m so excited about coming to DeKalb is that it’s big enough and exciting enough and vibrant enough to be the challenge that keeps me engaged in the work while also allowing me to be closer to schools and closer to students,” Watson-Harris said.
The school district will host a virtual town hall with Watson-Harris on Thursday, June 11, 6:30-8 p.m. Residents can submit questions via phone at 678-676-0722 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and watch online at dekalbschoolsga.org/communications/dstv or on channel DSTV 24.