DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — The DeKalb County school system is in turmoil after the surprise firing of superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris this week.
Both Gov. Brian Kemp and the state school superintendent criticized the move, but the board chair defends it.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher has uncovered a series of problems in that district.
The next permanent superintendent will be Dekalb’s ninth superintendent in 12 years.
Firing Watson-Harris now, firing Steve Green in 2018 and botching the hiring of Rudy Crew in 2020, will end up costing taxpayers at least $1.3 million.
The school district’s problems have piled up for years, and Channel 2 Action News has documented many of them.
The video of conditions inside Druid Hills High School highlighted the problem of school maintenance, which critics say exists systemwide.
Watson-Harris’ handling of that uproar may have contributed to her sudden dismissal, but the institutional rot inside the school system is not always visible.
Like years of financial mismanagement.
“Something as simple as cash: How much money do we have in the bank and how many checks have we written? They can’t even tell you that number,” said independent forensic accountant Steve Lovoy in a Channel 2 Action News report from December about a state audit of school district finances. “The gaps that are in the financial reporting system right now leaves the board completely wide open for fraud.”
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Channel 2 Action News broke the story that an independent assessment of the district’s procurement system found there is a potential for negligence and misappropriation of public funds.
The current district culture is one in which ethics and integrity in procurement have not been emphasized.
In early 2019, the state attorney general’s office scolded the school board for holding so-called mini-sessions to discuss the budget.
The attorney general concluded it was an obvious effort to avoid compliance with the open meetings act.
Joel Edwards and his group Restore DeKalb believe the Druid Hills video focused attention on a systemic problem made worse by what he calls a well-established culture of retaliation.
“A lot of these principals and teachers and students, well, I think, students and also workers are afraid to speak up,” Edwards said.
Edwards and his group have been calling for an independent forensic audit of the district for years.
“Show me the money. There’s never been, there’s no accountability as to how our money’s being spent.
By coincidence, state auditors are to post their latest results on DeKalb’s financial management on Friday.
We will be watching to see if the district has made progress.
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