November 24, 2014

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Lorain Schools enrollment didn’t rise as Atkinson had estimated

LORAIN — Former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson failed her math final for Lorain Schools.

At an Aug. 24 meeting of the Board of Education, Atkinson told the audience that preliminary estimates showed district enrollment up by about 200 students from the 2009-10 school year. The remark drew applause because Lorain’s enrollment has been declining in recent years due to open enrollment and charter schools.

The district received about $5,500 per student from state taxpayers last year, so the increase meant up to $1.1 million more for the impoverished district, which faces a projected $12 million deficit in the 2012-13 school year and is expecting to lay off up to 120 teachers.

However, Atkinson’s math was fuzzy, according to interim Superintendent Ed Branham, who replaced Atkinson on Sept. 6.

Branham said at Wednesday’s board meeting that Atkinson later estimated an increase of up to 600 students, but the increase was “erroneous.” Branham said Atkinson’s staff didn’t account for student withdrawals during the summer and mistakenly double-counted students.

Branham said the actual enrollment is 7,488 — within 100 students of the reported enrollment in 2009-10.

Branham said he didn’t think Atkinson, who left Lorain to become superintendent for DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, tried to mislead the board and parents, but board member Jim Smith disagreed.

Smith said it was impossible for the district to gain 600 students in a year.

“I knew she wasn’t telling the truth,” said Smith, who saw Atkinson as more self-promoter than reformer. “It was her trying to make her exit look great, in my opinion, because the (official) numbers weren’t in yet.”

Atkinson’s $250,000 salary and the perception that she played favorites, was secretive and oversaw a bloated administrative staff at the Charleston Administration Center caused resentment among school employees and the public, Branham previously said.

Branham on Oct. 26 announced three administrative positions at Charleston would go unfilled, saving about $200,000 and that an additional $400,000 in cuts would be made.

Branham said Tuesday that he heard criticism of Atkinson’s salary and style while campaigning for Issue 14, the 1.5 percent earned income tax levy that would’ve raised $8.2 million for the district.

The tax was rejected by voters 6,365 to 5,672, a nearly 53 percent to 47 percent defeat margin, according to unofficial results.

Branham said Tuesday that Atkinson did some “not very smart things” by moving staff out of schools and into Charleston in August before the start of the school year. Branham said he didn’t know if resentment of Atkinson cost Issue 14 votes, but “it was just one of those things that didn’t help.”

Atkinson couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but board President Tony Dimacchia said he didn’t believe she lied about enrollment.

Dimacchia noted that Atkinson said the numbers were unofficial.

“I don’t believe she was making it up,” he said. “She was going by the numbers she was given.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.