DeKalb school Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson to leave early with pay package

For the third time in three years, school officials in DeKalb County are set to name someone new to oversee the third-largest student population in Georgia. Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson will get five months pay to leave, under an unsigned agreement released Thursday.

School board Chairman Eugene Walker emerged from a closed-door session with his fellow board members Thursday and told reporters that they had reached a “mutual understanding of separation” with Atkinson. She’ll be leaving a year and a half early; she originally signed a three-year contract to work to September 2014. According to the contract, she would have been given a year’s severance if the separation was for the board’s convenience rather than mutual.

The board has called a 4 p.m. meeting Friday to ratify the decision and pick a temporary successor.

Atkinson gets $114,583 for leaving, plus payment for any unused vacation, according to the agreement. It takes effect at midnight Friday if the board approves it. The agreement calls on the board and Atkinson to work together to produce a “mutually approved joint public statement that is brief and non-disparaging.”

The interim superintendent wasn’t named, but on Monday former Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond emerged from a similar closed-door meeting and said he’d been asked about his leadership philosophy and said the words “interim” and “superintendent” had come up. Thurmond could not be reached for comment Thursday.

This will be a crucial transition for a district in crisis. In December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed DeKalb on probation, alleging financial mismanagement, nepotism and meddling by the school board. On Feb. 21, the Georgia Board of Education will hold a hearing to decide whether to suspend the DeKalb board. A 2011 state law allows the governor to remove boards in school systems on probation, if the state board recommends it.

Atkinson has been on leave since her father’s death on Jan. 23, according to the district, and could not be reached for comment. Jeff Dickerson, a district spokesman, had no immediate comment.

Since she started the job in September 2011 Atkinson, 54, has been earning $275,000 a year. She’s also gotten insurance and retirement benefits, home Internet access and a $2,600 monthly allowance for expenses. She was hired by the school board under a mandate from SACS. The agency wanted the system to replace its interim superintendent with a permanent leader.

Before Atkinson’s arrival, Ramona Tyson, the district’s current chief strategy officer, had filled in as temporary chief for more than a year and a half. Tyson was appointed interim superintendent in February 2010. Then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis was on paid leave and under a cloud. In April 2010, a month before his indictment on conspiracy and fraud charges, he departed under school board pressure. Authorities alleged he was part of a conspiracy to steal school construction money, and his trial is still pending.

With the criminal investigation buzzing in the background, school officials were trying to manage decaying finances in a county hit hard by recession. Atkinson was supposed to bring a measure of calm.

Atkinson wasn’t the school board’s first choice, and several of the nine board members publicly criticized her background: her prior post was as superintendent of the relatively tiny Lorain City Schools near Cleveland, Ohio. The student population there was about 8,000 — less than a tenth DeKalb’s nearly 100,000. After the rocky welcome, Atkinson got to work, visiting schools, meeting with parents and assembling a new administration.

The problems she encountered were potentially crippling. The recession had undermined property values, and tax revenues were falling. This led to deep cuts last summer that resulted in fewer teachers and still left an unprecedented deficit of $16 million, which must be repaid.

Perhaps more serious in the long run, though, was lingering mistrust, exacerbated by the indictment of Lewis. Parents started paying close attention, and noted every perceived misstep by Atkinson.

In a rare interview late last year, the media-shy superintendent acknowledged the abiding public doubt. “I know we have some trust issues,” Atkinson admitted. “And we have to regain that.”

She never did with some parents, such as Gloria Nesmith.

Early on, Atkinson riled Nesmith and other parents by temporarily banning marching bands, announcing an investigation into unspecified allegations. A DeKalb graduate and band member at Florida A&M University had just died, allegedly of injuries sustained from hazing by other DeKalb graduates.

Band was later restored, but the outcome of the investigation was never disclosed. Nesmith worried her son was stigmatized and his scholarship prospects diminished.

The boy graduated and went on to college, but Nesmith put her two younger children in private schools. “I just couldn’t take the chance of having my kids in an unstable educational environment, so I got them on out of there,” Nesmith said. “This was a train wreck that people saw coming years ago with the Crawford Lewis thing.”

Nesmith’s assessment of Atkinson’s tenure: “I think she was in over her head.” She added that the separation package the board is paying Atkinson is money the district can ill afford.

DeKalb’s classrooms have been spilling over as the system has cut teaching positions to save money. Students have gotten by with textbooks held together by glue.

Atkinson’s popularity also took hits when she pushed through a new attendance calendar despite parent opposition, moved nearly 40 principals to other schools with little or no parent input and attempted a major change of attendance boundaries with little time for public comment. After a backlash, she abandoned that last effort.

Some observers have said Atkinson made tough decisions that needed to be made, even if they hurt and alienated some groups.

State Sen. Fran Millar, the former chairman of the Georgia senate education committee, was initially skeptical of Atkinson’s qualifications. By late last year, though, Millar, R-Dunwoody, was saying he was “pleasantly surprised” by her “perseverance to do what she thinks is right.”

It’s unclear whether the loss of a superintendent will affect the DeKalb board’s chances for survival or the district’s accreditation. SACS has threatened to strip the district of accreditation if the board doesn’t address a list of management concerns.

Mark Elgart, head of SACS’ parent company AdvancEd, said Thursday that the district is in a “precarious position” and Atkinson’s departure “doesn’t help.”

Elgart noted that the board couldn’t muster majority support for a new chairman when it met Wednesday.

“It speaks volumes about the uncertainty of the system and provides no confidence moving forward,” he said.

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