A divided DeKalb school board selects Atkinson

A divided DeKalb County school board ended its two year hunt for a new school boss Monday and hired Cheryl L. H. Atkinson to become the next person to take over Georgia's third largest school district.

"She has a proven record of lifting academic achievement for all students and she is a highly respected and experienced leader," said Tom Bowen, the chairman of DeKalb's school board.

Atkinson, 52, commanded the support of 6 of the 9 Board of Education members, dissent came from a third of the board: members Don McChesney, Pamela Speaks and Nancy Jester.

A couple of weeks ago, when Atkinson was named as the lone finalist, Jester and McChesney launched Internet letters to their constituents saying that they didn't feel Atkinson had the credentials or experience to tackle DeKalb. They also cited what they considered her spotty record at improving student performance.

Bowen and others on the board pointed out that while Atkinson currently works for a small district, her 30-year career includes top management stints in districts much bigger than DeKalb, including Charlotte, N.C. and Kansas City, Mo.

Atkinson’s contract, which expires Sept. 14, 2014, guarantees an annual salary of $275,000, plus health insurance, a term life insurance policy equal to her salary and professional liability insurance.

Atkinson will also get an automatic $2,600 per month – that’s another $31,200 a year -- for expenses and she can submit reimbursement requests “for all other reasonable expenses” above that amount. She also gets $750 a month for driving her car for work.

As for a home, taxpayers will cover moving costs and rent of up to $2,000 a month for up to six months if the total doesn’t exceed $26,000.

The board can fire her with a three fourths majority, but she’s entitled to either 12 months’ salary or pay for the amount of time remaining in her contract, whichever is less.

Her current job is that of school boss over a 7,600 student district with one high school. The system has been struggling academically and until just a few weeks ago her district ranked fifth on a six-tier grid for school performance in Ohio.  It recently moved up a notch.

DeKalb, with 96,000 students and a $775-million annual operating budget, is also facing big issues. Nearly two dozen schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal "No Child Left Behind" act, a strict and sometimes controversial national scale set for school performance. Parents of more than 1,300 DeKalb students asked that their children get moved to better performing schools.

Also, DeKalb is wading through an ongoing $100 million lawsuit against its former construction firm Heery International as well as legal ramifications from its former superintendent, Crawford Lewis. He along with several others, were indicted in 2010 on charges that they ran a criminal enterprise from the schools involving more than $80 million in school construction money. Lewis was fired.

The district has until Oct. 31 to have a new superintendent in place or face possible sanctions from its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The district still needs to unravel its legal troubles and on the most basic level -- help children to succeed academically.

Atkinson wasn't present at the morning meeting because she is still running the Lorain City School system in the metro Cleveland area. But she made a strong impression on about 300 parents and teachers at a meet-and-greet Saturday where she promised a top-to-bottom review of every department.

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

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