Cheryl Atkinson is out and former Georgia labor commissioner Michael Thurmond is in as leader of the DeKalb County School District, the third largest in the state.
After first failing to muster a majority, the DeKalb school board tried a second time Friday and by a 5-4 vote approved a separation agreement that pays Atkinson $114,583 to leave. Then, they voted 7-2 to approve an employment agreement with Michael Thurmond, a former Georgia lawmaker who went on to become state labor commissioner.
Thurmond will be paid the same $275,000 salary Atkinson got, and will receive three months’ pay if the DeKalb board replaces him before his year-long contract expires.
He said he had no interest in holding the position long-term. Thurmond said the search for a permanent superintendent would begin immediately and he would leave as soon as one is found.
The transition at the top of a system that educates almost 100,000 students comes at a perilous moment. An accrediting agency has threatened to strip DeKalb’s accreditation, alleging a multitude of governance sins by the school board.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accused the board of nepotism and financial mismanagement, among other things, and placed the system on accreditation probation in December. That triggered a provision in state law allowing removal of the school board. The board goes before the Georgia Board of Education for a hearing on the matter on Feb. 21.
If the state board recommend it, Gov. Nathan Deal would have authority to remove all nine DeKalb board members. Neither Deal nor the state board chairwoman had comments about that.
Atkinson’s separation document and official statements describe the break as a mutual agreement, but she wasn’t around to comment. She’s been absent since her father died Jan. 23.
Marcia Coward, president of the DeKalb County Council of PTAs, said the transition comes at an unfortunate time of distress for the school system. She said she spoke with Atkinson a few weeks ago and believes the board pushed her out.
“I don’t think she wanted to leave,” Coward said.
Thurmond, 60, was a Democratic member of the Georgia House of Representatives from 1987 until 1992, when he and school board chairman Eugene Walker, then a Democrat in the state Senate, ran competing campaigns for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in DeKalb. Neither won.
Thurmond’s lack of educational experience and his ties to Walker disturbed some parents. Despite their adversarial run for the same seat, Walker and Thurmond worked together on legislative matters, such as reapportionment.
“I’m beyond angry,” said Paula Caldarella of Dunwoody. “His only qualification seems to be that he’s friends with a couple of board members. It’s almost as if these people are arrogant enough to think they can do whatever they want to.”
Don McChesney, who lost re-election to the school board last year, suspected the board’s chairman played a role in Thurmond’s selection. Walker and Thurmond go back decades, he said.
“All signs would point to Gene. They’re friends,” McChesney said.
Walker, who voted to hire Thurmond, acknowledged their prior working relationship, but said he recommended four people and Thurmond wasn’t one of them.
Marshall Orson, who unseated McChesney to become one of the three new board members this year, said he’s the one who brought up Thurmond’s name. No one else had considered him, Orson said.
Orson had seen Thurmond speaking publicly and in small groups over the years, and was impressed.
“He just had a way about him that drew people in,” Orson said. He said Thurmond’s lack of an educational leadership background seemed an asset, given the withering criticism of the public these days for so-called “educrats.”
Thurmond said he wasn’t hired because he was somebody’s friend. Rather, he was brought to DeKalb to help turn it around. After regaining full accreditation, he said, his biggest challenge is unifying a divided county.
He said after the vote that he looked forward to being a “bridge” between disparate groups in DeKalb. He said he was interested in the job because it was a challenge and because he believes in the importance of public education. Former colleagues on both sides of the partisan aisle praised Thurmond’s demeanor and leadership skills.
Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, described Thurmond as “a man of high character.”
“I’m confident he [can] do anything he commits himself to doing,” Mullis said. “He would make an excellent superintendent.”
Thurmond, a lawyer, has leadership experience beyond labor commissioner. Before that role, in the early 1990s, he directed a state agency that was a magnet for depressing news — what was then called the Department of Family and Children Services.
Georgia’s last Democrat governor, Roy Barnes, knows Thurmond well from their time at the Capitol. Barnes, now a lawyer in private practice, said he thought Thurmond would bring bracing, and necessary, change as interim superintendent.
“For an interim to kind of stir things up, I think Michael Thurmond would be a great choice,” Barnes said.
The son of a Georgia sharecropper who couldn’t read or write, Thurmond said public education is “critical to the future of this county and this state and this nation.
“I think we have to work harder to bridge the geographic, racial and political divides,” he said. He said being a bridge builder is “part of who I am.”
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Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin, Nancy Badertscher and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.