Former Superintendent Xernona Thomas risked her health and broke CCSD’s glass ceiling

For years, Xernona Thomas silently endured the pressures of her job at the Clark County School District’s central office.

“Dr. Thomas seemed to have an unlimited capacity to work with people with whom she might not agree and with whom she was not the most popular,” said LaKeisha Gantt, president of the Clark County Board of Education. “You would rarely see her emotions take over her leadership and work. She was never derailed and unable to do her job.

Thomas refused to focus on the malicious comments, the worries, the disagreements, the demands, the accusations, the accusations, 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.

Attached to an IV, she thought about her future. He wondered if he was going to die. The chief’s work, her medical team told her, was killing her. She neglected her physical and mental health. She knew that her husband could find another woman, but she also knew that their two children would never have another mother who would love them like she did. She knew someone else could fill her position as Athens Clark County Superintendent of Schools.

Her time in office has been marked by a combination of issues no other local superintendent has ever faced: the divisive tenure and disruptive departure of her predecessor, a divided community, an accrediting agency investigation, COVID-19, school closings and transition to a virtual training environment, mask mandates. Former school board member John Knox, who left office in January 2020, says he “appreciated Dr. Thomas’ reliance on the science and epidemiology experts at UGA in handling COVID, which I believe was better than what UGA itself did. ”

Last November, after public schools reopened, Thomas told the BOE he was retiring within a year, giving them plenty of 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 district’s first female superintendent has led the district since 2019. She left Oct. 8, handing the district over to Robbie Hooker, former Social Circle superintendent and Clark County teacher and principal.

Thomas grew up in a neighborhood off Timothy Road with his parents and maternal grandparents. Former residents of Linnentown — a predominantly black neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for UGA dorms — her grandparents moved to help care for Xernona, their only grandchild, after as her father was disabled in an accident. She graduated from Clarke Central High School and then UGA, where she started in the pharmacy program, switched to journalism — “My parents thought I was crazy,” she says — and earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations. “I liked writing and working in public relations, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people,” so she returned to UGA for a master’s degree in social work and later a doctorate in education with a focus on education policy.

When a social worker job opened up at CCSD in the early 1990s, she took it. “I found that I liked being with children and being in school,” she says. Her sheltered upbringing in a multi-generational home did not prepare her for what she encountered.

“It opened my eyes to realities I didn’t even know existed,” says Thomas. Some of the children suffered from physical and emotional abuse, and the families had financial and health problems. He took the kids to doctor’s appointments and the adults to the grocery store, “because that’s what we did back then,” and stayed in touch with them, sometimes for years.

Thomas then worked as a social worker in Oconee County and a middle school principal before returning to Clark County as principal of JJ Harris Elementary, then a new school serving north Athens. Gantt worked as a behavioral specialist at JJ Harris while Thomas was a director, “and I could see that she trusted 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 chief, say she simply slipped into the position out of convenience. Or that she planned to undermine him when she was his chief of staff, wanting the power and prestige of the position. Those who have observed her interactions with Mians disagree with this accusation. “She never criticized her boss,” said school board member Tawanna Maddox. “She’s just not like that. Whether she disagreed with him or not, she wasn’t going to show it.

The board hired her as interim superintendent and then superintendent because “she was exactly the person we needed at the time we needed her the most,” says board member Patricia Yager. “I’m so grateful that she stepped in for this breakthrough. It 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 training side.”

Gantt says Thomas was never “results-oriented” when it came to school kids, and he didn’t forget that “we’re dealing with human beings. Of course students need to achieve, but she knows there are all these other parts of children and that they are social and emotional beings.’

Thomas isn’t sure what the future holds for her, other than walking, drinking water and spending more time cooking healthy meals. She can renew her license as a social worker and work with children as a counselor. She will also continue to reflect on the past few years.

“As a woman, you can break barriers and move into spaces that have been closed to you, but being there doesn’t eliminate the practices that have been put in place to keep you out,” she says. “I know I’ve been treated differently because I’m a woman, but I can’t walk around assuming people are going to mistreat me on purpose.”

Thomas has a question that will probably never be answered. “I wonder if people know I have three bags of golf clubs in my house?” she says. “Not that I wanted to go to the country club to play golf, but we all know that discussions and decisions are made during golf games, and I was not invited to participate in that process.”

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