The long search may have ended; the DeKalb County School Board is planning to publicly vote on Aug. 29 to install Dr. Cheryl Atkinson as the new superintendent of DeKalb County Schools.
Atkinson has been an educator for nearly three decades and has risen through the ranks to become the current superintendent of the Lorain City School System in Ohio.
Although the Lorain district has approximately 7,626 students, Atkinson has had experience running a larger district. She was associate superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System in North Carolina and oversaw 127,000 students, which is more than DeKalb’s student population.
Lorain School Board Member Jim Smith said that although he and Atkinson have had their differences—usually about management style—he always found her personable and easy to work with in most cases.
However, according to Smith, Atkinson has yet to officially notify Lorain board members that she has accepted a position in DeKalb and she still has two years left on her contract with Lorain City Schools.
“I’m not sure, if I were she, I would even take the job because it looks like she’s stepping into a firestorm,” Smith said.
Recently, DeKalb board members Nancy Jester and Donald McChesney sent constituents letters outlining reasons they were unable “in good conscience” to vote for Atkinson.
Both letters make reference to the Lorain system’s low academic report card rating and said that Atkinson has not had enough experience running a district as large as DeKalb. Smith echoed those concerns and said that the since Atkinson was hired, the system is doing worse, not better.
“I have to say that if we look at the record the fact is, academically we are not as high as we were when she got here,” Smith said. “When she got here in 2007 we were ranked by the state as ‘Continuous Improvement’ and last year we fell to ‘Academic Watch’. Previously we had made six of the benchmarks lined out by the Ohio Department of Education and this past year we only made one.”
However, according to the information provided by Atkinson in her application to search firm Ray and Associates, she listed a host of achievements.
“Although Lorain’s poverty rate is more than 82 percent, our children are succeeding. The graduation rate has climbed from 75.9 percent in 2006-07 to 84.7 percent in 2009-10,” Atkinson said in her cover letter.
Lorain School Board President Tony Dimacchia commended Atkinson in a letter of recommendation and said that she had experience working in an urban system.
“Despite million-dollar deficits and a 10 percent increase in the student poverty index, Dr. Atkinson has expanded educational programs and increased student achievement. She has brought more than $18 million to provide the ‘Success for All’ reading reform model,” Dimacchia said.
Also, according to reports in the Morning Journal, a newspaper serving northern Ohio, school officials have said that they recently learned that Lorain’s state report card ranking will move up from “Academic Watch” to “Continuous Improvement.”
President of the Organization of DeKalb Educators (ODE) David Schutten said in a recent letter sent to The Champion and organization members that he found Jester and McChesney’s actions to be both “hypocritical and disingenuous,” since they did not express the same concerns when Dr. Lillie Cox was named as a finalist.
“Dr. Cox had far less experience, which was all in one state. All of the members I have heard from agree with my assessment. Many members have expressed concerns to me that the comments of Ms. Jester and Mr. McChesney are racially motivated,” Shutten said.
Cox pulled out of negotiations to become the next superintendent after contractual details were leaked to the press by board members. In the letter, Schutten also stated that Jester’s actions over the past several months have done a “great disservice” to the DeKalb County System.
“In my opinion, she has become the most divisive and destructive person in DCSS,” Shutten wrote.
Both Jester and McChesney did not return phone calls prior to deadline.
DeKalb School Board member Eugene Walker said that the majority of the board is in support of Atkinson and that he thought she was without a doubt the right person for the job.
“I’m 1,000 percent in support of her,” Walker said. “We just want to let this run its course and we’re waiting for the final vote.”
Recently, DeKalb County has made the preliminary draft of Atkinson’s contract available to the public.
According to the contract, Atkinson will be hired for a term of three years and the board has the power to terminate or extend her contract at any time. She is also required to hold and maintain a valid and appropriate certificate issued by the Professional Standards Commission of the State of Georgia.
Atkinson’s annual base salary will be $275,000 with an allowance of $2,600 a month for routine expenses. She will have $750 a month for travel expenses.
According to DeKalb Board Chairman Tom Bowen, the routine expense allowance is to pay for things such as business luncheons or any kind of meetings that the superintendent has throughout the month. Bowen said that since government funds can’t be used for those types of expenses they need to be written into Atkinson’s contract.
“This is to give the superintendent the ability to network and build relationships with colleges and personnel,” Bowen said. In the contract, there is also an unspecified relocation allowance as well as a temporary housing allowance of $2,000 a month for the first six months until Atkinson is able to find a permanent residence.
Atkinson is scheduled to meet with parents and community members on Aug. 27 to give a brief overview of her vision for DeKalb Schools and answer questions submitted by community members.
The meet-and-greet will take place at the DeKalb County School District Administrative Complex at 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Tucker at 10 a.m.