For years, Xernona Thomas silently carried the pressures of her job in the central office of the Clarke County School District.
“Dr. Thomas seemed to have a limitless capacity to work with people she may not have agreed with, and with whom she wasn’t the most popular,” says LaKeisha Gantt, president of the Clarke County Board of Education. “You would rarely see her emotions take over her leadership and work. She was never derailed and not able to do her job.”
Thomas refused to focus on the snide comments, the worry, the disagreements, the demands, the accusations, the blame, the utter exhaustion, the stress, until finally her body and spirit rebelled, sending her blood pressure into the stratosphere and landing her in Piedmont Athens Regional, temporarily blinded and fighting for her life.
Tethered to an IV drip, she thought about her future. She wondered if she would die. The superintendent’s job, her medical team told her, was killing her. She was neglecting her physical and mental health. She knew her husband could find another wife, but she also knew their two children would never have another mother who loved them as she did. She knew someone else could fill her position as the school superintendent of Athens Clarke County.
Her time in office was marked by a combination of issues no other local superintendent ever had to deal with: the divisive tenure and disruptive departure of her predecessor, a divided community, an accreditation agency’s investigation, COVID-19, closing schools and pivoting to virtual learning, mask mandates. Former school board member John Knox, who left office in January 2020, says he “appreciated that Dr. Thomas relied on science and experts in epidemiology at UGA in dealing with COVID, which was, in my opinion, better than what UGA itself did.”
Last November, after public schools had reopened, Thomas told the BOE she was retiring within a year, giving them ample time to find a replacement. Thirty-one years in education as a social worker, assistant principal, principal, chief of staff, interim superintendent and superintendent was enough.
The county’s first female school superintendent led the district since 2019. She left on Oct. 8, turning the district over to Robbie Hooker, a former Social Circle superintendent and Clarke County teacher and principal.
Thomas grew up in a neighborhood off Timothy Road with her parents and maternal grandparents. Formerly residents of Linnentown—a mostly Black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for UGA dorms—her grandparents moved in to help care for Xernona, their only grandchild, after her father was disabled in an accident. She graduated from Clarke Central High School and then from UGA, where she started in the pharmacy program, switched to journalism—“My parents thought I was crazy,” she says—and earned an undergraduate degree with a concentration in public relations. “I liked writing and working in PR, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people,” so she returned to UGA for a master’s of social work and, later, a doctorate in education with a focus on educational policy.
When a social worker job opened with the CCSD in the early 1990s, she took it. “I found that I liked being with kids and being in schools,” she says. Her sheltered upbringing in a multi-generational home didn’t prepare her for what she encountered.
“It opened my eyes to realities that I didn’t even know existed,” Thomas says. Some of the children suffered from physical and emotional abuse, and families were dealing with financial problems and health issues. She would take kids to doctor appointments and adults to the grocery store “because that’s what we did then,” and would stay in touch with them, sometimes for years.
Thomas then served as a social worker in Oconee County and a middle school principal before returning to Clarke County as principal at J.J. Harris Elementary, a then-new school serving the north side of Athens. Gantt worked as a behavioral specialist at J.J. Harris while Thomas was principal, “and I could see that she put trust in those who worked around her and gave them autonomy,” Gantt says.
From there, Thomas moved to the central office as chief of staff for Demond Means, who arrived in 2016. After his acrimonious departure in December 2019, she was named acting superintendent, then interim superintendent and finally superintendent.
Some critics, vocal supporters of the previous superintendent, say she had just slipped into the position because of convenience. Or that she had plotted to undermine him when she was his chief of staff, wanting the power and prestige of the position. Those who observed her interactions with Means disagree with that accusation. “She never criticized her boss,” says school board member Tawana Maddox. “That’s just not who she is. Whether she disagreed with him or not, she wouldn’t show it.”
The board named her as interim superintendent and then superintendent because “she was exactly the person we needed at the time when we needed her most,” says board member Patricia Yager. “I’m so grateful she stepped into this breach. She builds trust. And she listens. Under her leadership, the board has learned to work well together, and I’m grateful to her for that because now we can do the work we need to do on the instructional side.”
Gantt says that Thomas has never “been outcome driven” when it comes to school children, and hasn’t forgotten “we are dealing with human beings. Of course, students have to achieve, but she knows there are all these other parts to children, and that they are social and emotional beings.”
Thomas isn’t sure what the future holds for her, other than taking walks, drinking water and spending more time cooking healthy meals. She may renew her license as a social worker and work with children in a counseling capacity. She will also continue reflecting on the past few years.
“As a woman, you may break barriers and move into spaces that have been closed off to you, but being there doesn’t eliminate the practices that were put in place to keep you out,” she says. “I know I was treated differently because I’m a woman, but I can’t walk around assuming people would intentionally mistreat me.”
Thomas does have one question that will probably never be answered. “I wonder if people know I have three bags of golf clubs in my house?” she says. “It’s not that I wanted to go to the country club to play golf, but we all know discussions and decisions are made over golf games, and I wasn’t invited to be involved in that process.”
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