City DopeNews

What Went Wrong During the Demond Means Era

Demond Means at a 2019 school board meeting. Credit: Whitley Carpenter

An eight-month negotiation ended July 23 when the Clarke County Board of Education reached a separation agreement with controversial former superintendent Demond Means.

The vote was 5–4, with Greg Davis, Patricia Yager, Kara Dyckman, John Knox and Tawana Mattox in favor, and Antwon Stephens, Linda Davis, Charles Worthy and LaKeisha Gantt opposed. Linda Davis, Worthy and Gantt also voted against placing Means on leave in December, before Stephens joined the board.

Gantt read a statement saying: “Dr. Means and the board have worked diligently to arrive at a mutually agreeable resolution that allows the school district and Dr. Means to move forward with meeting their shared objectives and goals of addressing and achieving educational equity for all students. Clarke County School District would like to thank Dr. Means for his leadership the past three years and wishes him well in his future endeavors.”

The settlement calls for Means to be paid $409,000 in wages he’s owed for the nearly two years remaining on his contract, and $136,500 in damages. His attorneys at the Atlanta law firm of Buckley Beal LLC will receive $92,000, for a total of $637,500.

As part of the settlement, Means waived his right to sue the district and agreed to withdraw an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.

Means was hired away from a suburban Milwaukee school district in 2017 to address racial disparities in Clarke County schools, starting what would become a tumultuous two and a half years at the helm of CCSD. He almost immediately became embroiled in racial politics on the school board, starting in October, when some Black citizens objected to a new rule prohibiting Worthy, who is African American, from serving consecutive terms as board president. 

Soon, an exodus of principals started, including longtime Chase Street Elementary leader Adam Kurtz, who oversaw the school’s turnaround to one of the best in the city. A year later, Means pushed out Kurtz’s successor. Her replacement didn’t make it through the 2019-2020 school year. Chase is now on its second interim principal and its fifth overall in three years. Popular Cedar Shoals principal Derrick Maxwell left in October of last year. And Means bristled when critics noted that he hired a principal for Alps Road Elementary who was also from Milwaukee (she later withdrew). CCSD lost hundreds of teachers and saw principal turnover at almost every school during his tenure.

Some parents disliked how Means kept children with disruptive behavioral problems in ordinary classrooms, and others complained that he sidelined Local School Governance Teams. A former CCSD teacher publicly called him “autocratic.” Critics also opposed moves like shutting down a farmers market on school property, hiring contractors from his hometown and shuffling ESPLOST money to prioritize an administration office over school renovations. 

Opponents of the school privatization movement viewed him warily. Means used public money to hire a coach to get him into the Broad Academy, a leadership school for superintendents founded by a billionaire investor who poured tens of millions of dollars into charter-school campaigns. The African-American head of the Georgia Federation of Teachers accused Means of using racial tactics to divide the community with the goal of turning “failing” schools over to for-profit companies.

While the board approved almost every policy initiative he proposed, Means often feuded with several individual board members, going so far as to file a complaint with accreditation agency AdvancED (now Cognia) alleging that Greg Davis, Knox and Mattox tried to micromanage him. They denied the charge and accused Means of trying to intimidate them. As a result of the subsequent investigation, CCSD is currently on probation.

The last straw came during a November meeting, when, while drafting a letter urging the Georgia Professional Standards Commission to dismiss an ethics complaint against Means, board members added a sentence saying they would hold the superintendent accountable.

“By virtue of that vote, you don’t want me as superintendent, and we need to have a discussion about how I leave,” Means said.

Later, he walked back the statement and said he wanted to stay, and to this day he still has a group of staunch supporters who’ve been demanding that the board bring him back. But a majority of board members felt the relationship was irreparable.

To Means’ supporters, he was the victim of a white supremacist attack on a strong Black leader who for the first time put the plight of Black children first. Former board president Jared Bybee wrote an op-ed for Flagpole saying Means’ critics never gave him a chance. Supporters point to an uptick in test scores at several majority Black schools in 2019 (although some schools saw test scores drop, and some had no change). Thanks to the pandemic, Milestones testing was canceled last spring, so there is probably not enough data to judge if Means’ reforms were actually working.

Linda Davis said the board did “a great disservice to Means and marginalized children.” The staff he hired has allowed CCSD to keep moving forward in his absence, and the board should have supported him, she said.

Worthy brought up the conspiracy theory that C.J. Amason, executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Public Education, orchestrated Means’ ouster—although it was Means himself who first suggested it was time for him to go. “I’m curious about some things, I’ve heard some things, but I don’t have any factual information,” Worthy said. “Hopefully, you all are doing the right thing, but I don’t feel good about this.”

The board’s youngest and newest member, Stephens, perhaps put it most succinctly: “I can’t believe a room full of adults got to this point.”