The head of the largest school district in Texas and the eighth largest in the U.S. is to become the next superintendent of Savannah and Chatham County schools.

Board of Education chairman Roger Moss today announced the selection of Dr. Denise Watts, chief of the Houston Independent School System, as the sole finalist for the job of overseeing of nearly 36,000 students and 5,600 employees and administering a budget of more than $592 million.

“The board is confident that Dr. Watts is the right leader to build upon and accelerate the progress made under retiring Superintendent Dr. Ann Levett,” Moss told reporters at a news conference on the steps of school district headquarters in downtown Savannah.

“Dr. Watts has consistently used a data-driven approach to increase student achievement, while also focusing on building effective relationships with students, staff, peers, and the community,” he added.

The school board will formally approve Watts’s appointment later this month in what is expected to be a pro forma vote. Levett is scheduled to step down on June 30 after a six-year tenure and perhaps the biggest challenge of her career: managing the school system through the travails of the pandemic.

Watts didn’t attend today’s news conference. Nor is any forum planned for her to take questions from the public before the school board vote, Moss said.

Asked why the school board announced only a single finalist for the job of leading Georgia’s 10th-largest school system, the school board chairman offered no explanation.

“This is the finalist we all agreed on and that is what we’re doing.”

‘Passion’ for ensuring success

Watts is poised to take over leadership of Georgia’s 10th largest school system, more than 60% of whose students are non-white. It boasted of a graduation rate of 87.6% and providing more than 5.9 million meals in the 2021-2022 school year.

At the same time, that system has lagged at addressing what Moss calls its biggest challenge: improving literacy. Some two-thirds of all elementary school students can’t read at grade level.

In his comments to reporters, Moss singled out for praise what he called Moss’ “passion for ensuring that all students are successful and can lead choice-build lives regardless of their circumstances.”

Watts graduated from Elizabeth City State University in 1997 with a B.S. in elementary education, according to her resume published on her Linked-In page. She was awarded an M.A. in school administration by the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in 2003 and a Ph.D. in education from Wingate University in 2014.

Before taking over as the superintendent of the Houston school system in September 2021, she served as a middle school principal and the learning community superintendent for Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation) for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.  

A different path

In naming Watts the sole finalist for the school superintendent’s job, the school board didn’t follow the road map Savannah officials used two years ago to select a new city manager.

Mayor Van Johnson and the Savannah City Council held a news conference to announce the three finalists for the post. That was followed by the release of the candidates’ biographies and meetings between the candidates and interested citizens across the city.

Jay Melder, former assistant city manager for Washington, D.C., won the competition in a unanimous council vote.

Following today’s news conference, one school board member hinted that Charleston County’s search for a new school superintendent was a factor in deciding to put forward only one finalist for the Savannah-Chatham County job.

That search was plunged into chaos when two finalists withdrew their names from consideration after their names were disclosed publicly, as allowed under South Carolina state law, and public listening sessions were scheduled.

They reportedly hadn’t told their current employers that they were looking at jobs elsewhere.

The final candidate is holding contract talks with the Charleston County School Board, which, like Savannah-Chatham County school board, hired an Illinois-based firm to aid its search for a new superintendent.    

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...