The Clarke County Board of Education voted last week to place Superintendent Demond Means on leave and name his chief of staff, Xernona Thomas, the chief executive until an interim superintendent is found.
The 5–3 vote at a called meeting Dec. 9 ended Means’ tumultuous two-and-a-half year tenure, although a number of details remain to be worked out, including any severance package. Means’ contract runs through the 2021–2022 school year, so he is owed more than $500,000 if he’s fired without cause.
Greg Davis, Kara Dyckman, Patricia Yager, Tawana Mattox and John Knox voted in favor of the motion, while Charles Worthy, Linda Davis and LaKeisha Gantt voted against it. District 2 representative Frances Berry resigned last month, leaving that seat vacant.
“I would like to say publicly that I am disheartened,” said Gantt, the board president. “Having done equity work, I know Clarke County is a special place, but we have some real issues we have to tackle as a city and as a school district.”
Yager said she was sad to make the motion, which drew jeers from a mostly pro-Means audience that had waited for over three hours while the board met behind closed doors. Yager said she is grateful to Means for starting CCSD down the path of racial equity and is interested in the next superintendent continuing in that direction.
After a discussion about an ethics complaint filed against Means in May, Means told the board at a Nov. 21 meeting that “you don’t want me as superintendent, and we need to have a discussion about how I leave.” The board then held a closed meeting on Dec. 3 to, as Gantt put it, “enter into negotiations for [Means’] exit.”
Means later walked back his Nov. 21 statement, telling a crowd at a community meeting on Dec. 7 that “if there’s anything I can do to mend fences, I will do it.” But clearly his already rocky relationship with a majority of board members had been damaged beyond repair.
Seventeen people spoke at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 12, most of them in favor of Means. “We want quality education for black children. It is long overdue,” local civil rights leader Fred Smith Sr. told the board. “It’s a shame what you’ve done. I don’t know how you look yourselves in the mirror.”
Former mayoral candidate Charlie Maddox said he is starting a recall petition to remove the board members who voted to relieve Means of his duties. “We can’t wait until 2020,” he said. “We can’t wait until 2022.” And Alvin Sheats, president of the local NAACP chapter, urged those board members to resign. “One, four, five, eight, nine, it might be your time,” he said, referring to the districts they represent.
Some speakers laid the blame on the Athens Land Trust, accusing the group of orchestrating Means’ ouster to get its hands on the old West Broad School property. But as Flagpole reported last week, the land trust has moved on and found another site for its farmers market, community garden and planned community center.
Others told the board it made the right decision. “The great cause of equity is being overshadowed by all the baggage of one man,” said UGA law professor Usha Rodrigues. “I see drama and fighting and confusion that distracts us from where we should be focused.”
Some have questioned the millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with outside consultants Means signed, and parent Janet Frick urged the board to return to the $10,000 spending limit that was raised to $80,000 during his tenure. “That would help restore some community trust and accountability,” she said. Teacher Brent Andrews reminded the audience that people are profiting off the idea that public schools are failing.
2018 school board candidate Imani Scott-Blackwell said teachers feel like they are discouraged from speaking out. She also asked the board to prove or disprove ex-CCSD teacher Karen Sweeney Gerow’s analysis of test score data showing that black students have made little to no progress under Means, in spite of his contention that some schools are starting to close the racial gap.
Although some board members said they should hold off on appointing an interim superintendent until a new District 2 representative is appointed, a meeting was called for Dec. 17 to appoint an interim superintendent, as well as hire a law firm to help the board deal with a complaint of micromanagement to the accreditation agency Cognia (formerly known as SACS and AdvancED). At the Dec. 12 meeting, the board voted 5–2 to dismiss a micromanagement allegation made by Means against Knox, which made up part of Means’ September response to Cognia in support of an investigation. Linda Davis and Worthy wanted a hearing—even though Means himself had said he preferred to work it out with Knox informally—and Knox abstained.
Information about the District 2 application process was posted on the CCSD website last week, and the deadline to apply is Jan. 10. The board is scheduled to vote on Berry’s replacement Jan. 16. Elections are in May for that seat and the district 4, 6 and 8 seats currently held by Yager, Worthy and Knox.
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