Georgia school district turns to second New Yorker as leader

A suburban Atlanta school district is looking to a second New York administrator for leadership after pulling back the welcome mat for former New York City schools chancellor Rudy Crew.

The DeKalb County school board on Thursday announced it was selecting New York City First Deputy Chancellor Cheryl Watson-Harris as the sole finalist to become superintendent of the 99,000-student district.

Under Georgia law, the board must wait 14 days before voting to hire Watson-Harris. That waiting period is usually a formality, but last month, multiple board members turned on Crew after initially voicing support for him. Crew suffered attacks over background issues that were already public, like his handling of investigations and spending issues. The board ultimately voted 4-3 to not offer Crew a contract.

Cheryl Watson-Harris

A series of closed-door meetings followed the May 11, vote, including one Wednesday. Board Chair Marshall Orson said in a statement Thursday that the board “reached a consensus” to name Watson-Harris over the course of those meetings. He didn’t say whether all board members support hiring Watson-Harris.

Watson-Harris is scheduled to meet online with district employees and community members.

“I am confident my experience in district restructuring and the equitable allocation of resources, as well as my achievements in improving school performance, can help DeKalb schools continue to move in the right direction,” she said in a statement.

Watson-Harris would take over for Superintendent Ramona Tyson, scheduled to retire at month’s end. Tyson has been leading Georgia’s third-largest school district since Superintendent Steve Green announced he would not seek a contract extension. The board later decided Green should leave immediately.

Watson-Harris is a New York City native who graduated from the city’s 1.1-million-student public school system and started work as a teacher there in 1993. She later pursued a master’s degree at Harvard University and went to work as a principal in Boston, becoming a network superintendent for some of that city’s public schools from 2013 to 2015. She returned to New York in 2015 and was later promoted to second in command.

Last year, the New York Post reported that the New York system granted admission to selective public schools for two of Watson-Harris’ children when she moved from Boston in 2015, though it’s difficult for students to transfer into such schools. Admissions to competitive schools are a source of ongoing dispute in New York, with critics saying they promote racial and class segregation.

Watson-Harris withdrew her application last week to lead the 44,000-student Sarasota County school system in Florida, telling the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that it was “just a personal choice.”

Her experience in New York and Boston meets the DeKalb board’s desire for someone with experience in a big, urban school system, but she’s never been a superintendent, another criteria some board members sought. The DeKalb district is divided between a minority of schools with more white students and a majority of schools with more students of color. School board members have wanted someone who will boost academic achievement and make sure poorer students have a fair share of resources.

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement that Watson-Harris “has contributed to advancing equity and excellence for New York City’s 1.1 million public school students.”

DeKalb has been beset by financial and administrative turmoil in recent years, with Gov. Nathan Deal purging the school board in 2013 after the district’s accreditor placed it on probation. The system hired Michael Thurmond, now DeKalb County CEO, to mount a rescue.