After less than two years, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson is leaving the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) in a condition some residents say is worse than when she was hired.
The DeKalb County School Board held a meeting Feb. 8 and approved a separation agreement with Atkinson and voted to appoint former Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond as interim superintendent.
“We are delighted Mr. Thurmond has agreed to serve as our interim superintendent,” said board Chairman Eugene Walker. “Our school district is facing significant challenges, and we need a leader with a strong record of making fundamental changes in large, complex organizations. Throughout our state, you’ll find almost universal agreement that Michael Thurmond has consistently demonstrated those abilities.”
“The board is committed to working with Mr. Thurmond,” said Jim McMahan, vice-chairman of the DeKalb board. “Under his leadership, we will work to ensure that every child in DeKalb has equal access to a quality education.”
Board member Marshall Orson said Thurmond will help bring stability. “He is a respected leader…we have a leadership deficit.”
“I welcome the opportunity to serve the 99,000 students of the DeKalb County schools,” Thurmond said in a statement. “By all of us coming together across our county—parents, employees, citizens and businesses north and south—there’s no limit to what we will accomplish for our schoolchildren.”
In a statement, DCSD stated that Thurmond is credited with transforming two unwieldy state agencies, first as director of the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and then as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor. At DFCS, Thurmond instituted a shift away from a culture of dependency for welfare recipients to a new focus on employment, job-training and personal responsibility. The Department of Labor underwent a similar change under his leadership, from a department that administered jobless benefits into a statewide resource for Georgians seeking career opportunities and training at newly created Career Centers throughout the state.
“We think that fundamental change is what our parents and stakeholders are demanding,” Walker said. “We are confident that Michael Thurmond is the leader with the track record and the ability to improve education for all of our schoolchildren.”
In a statement, DeKalb schools spokeswoman Lillian Govus said Atkinson and the DeKalb County school board mutually agreed to end their relationship.
“The board and Dr. Atkinson each determined and believe that it is in the best interest of all concerned that there be a mutual separation and they wish each other well in all their future endeavors,” Govus said.
According to the separation agreement, Atkinson will no longer be employed by the district “Feb. 8, 2013, as of midnight.” Atkinson will receive $114,600 in severance pay in monthly installments of $22,900 until June 2013.
Atkinson also agreed to cooperate with the board, its attorneys and staff members in any pending administrative issues or litigation, as well as future issues in which she may be involved.
Additionally, the agreement states that Atkinson and the board parted “amicably.”
Four board members opposed separation agreement with Atkinson.
Board members Nancy Jester and Pamela Speaks were the only two board members who did not vote in favor of Thurmond.
Jester said she doesn’t support a separation agreement nor the appointment of Thurmond because the deal was done too quickly and that state board and AdvancEd should have been notified and brought in to help the district determine the next best step.
Shawn Keefe, co-founder of the Ashford Park School Education Foundation, said Atkinson’s departure is a “small step in the right direction.”
“Atkinson has proven that she was not the right choice back in 2011,” said Keefe, adding that “the overall culture of DCSD is what needs to be radically changed.”
“That cannot happen until Gov. Nathan Deal dissolves the current DeKalb County Board of Education,” Keefe said.
DeKalb County “desperately” needs a superintendent and board that will work jointly and transparently to make the students and taxpayers their top priority, Keefe said. “Our schools are the backbones of our communities and we need make them strong again.”
Deal stated in a recent interview with WABE that it didn’t matter who serves as superintendent—Atkinson or an interim.
“It really doesn’t change the dynamics in my opinion because what has gotten them in trouble is the accrediting agency putting them [on] a probationary status. That is the point that triggers the state statute that requires the state school board to review the actions of the school system itself,” Deal said.
The DeKalb board is required to go before the state board again Feb. 21, to show it has made significant improvement on the required actions called for by AdvancED. At that point, state board members will decided whether to make a recommendation to Deal to dissolve the current DeKalb County School Board and replace it with appointed members.
“I don’t think replacing the school superintendent will change the dynamics of that particular process now,” Deal said.
Mark Elgart, president of AdvancED, said if the district does not make significant improvement on the action items listed that loss of accreditation is “imminent.”
President of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, David Schutten, said the lack of transparency and integrity of the current DeKalb school board is endangering the future of the entire school district.
Schutten said many people have questioned the appointment of Thurmond because he has a long-term relationship with board chairman Walker.
“I cannot fathom or believe Michael Thurmond would sacrifice the significant political capital and influence he has built up over the last two decades to protect and reinstate the nepotism and ‘friends and family network’ that ruled DeKalb for so many years,” Schutten said.
Additionally, Schutten called for the resignations of both Walker and board member Sarah Copelin-Woods, accusing them of “dozing off” during the last state board meeting.
In a statement, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis said he is “deeply concerned about the recent events involving the DeKalb County School District.”
“Given the critical role the school system plays in preparing our children to succeed in a 21st century global economy, as well as in supporting community revitalization, public health, and our overall quality of life, I am compelled to act on this urgent matter,” Ellis stated.
Ellis said will plans to “convene a meeting of academic, business, community, and political leaders to fully discern what actions the school board is taking to remedy the issues articulated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council (SACS) and the Georgia State Board of Education.
“We will also explore how best to assist in the process,” Ellis said.
Clarkston Mayor Emanuel Ransom described Atkinson’s departure as a “tragic loss.”
“She upgraded education and teaching. Now, all of a sudden she’s gone. I’m sad to see her go,” Ransom said.
Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson said she is concerned with the timing of Atkinson’s departure with the second meeting in front of the state board looming in the near future.
“The school board needs to come together to address the issues that have been identified…so that the county doesn’t lose its accreditation,” Jackson said.
“Whoever comes next…really will have their work cut out for them,” Jackson said.