November 27, 2014

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Atkinson’s Lorain tenure also controversial

LORAIN — Cheryl Atkinson’s tenure as Lorain Schools superintendent was longer and happier than her time at DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, where her ouster is expected today, but not without controversy.

Seventeen months after Atkinson’s departure, reforms in Lorain have been instituted in the way superintendents are paid and how the school district is run. Atkinson, superintendent from 2007-11, earned $265,810 in salary and benefits her final year in Lorain.

In the academically and financially struggling Lorain, Atkinson was considered overpaid by some residents, and some voters cited it when opposing levies. From 1992 to last November, residents failed to pass new levies, rejecting three during Atkinson’s tenure.

Interim Superintendent Ed Branham, who replaced Atkinson in 2011 and departed in August, earned $130,000. Superintendent Tom Tucker’s total annual salary and benefits are $189,810 compared with the  $194,872 Superintendent Dee Morgan earned in her final year in 2007.

Tucker’s contract also includes $500 annual bonuses for each academic standard achieved in the annual Ohio Department of Education report card and for each 50-student enrollment increase. Students met just five of 26 standards on the report card in Atkinson’s final year. Atkinson said enrollment increased by about 200 students in her final year, but Branham said Atkinson mistakenly double-counted students, and enrollment remained at nearly 7,500 students.

Board members said Atkinson’s tenure made them want to make future superintendent’s salaries more in line with area districts and more performance-based.

Branham previously said the perception that the Charleston Administration Center was bloated under Atkinson helped torpedo a 2011 levy. Tucker is expected to announce a downsizing plan for the center later this year that focuses on putting more administrators in schools.

Board President Tim Williams said the plain-spoken Tucker, who grew up in Lorain and spent 28 years working for the district before departing shortly after Atkinson took over, has improved morale. Williams said it’s natural that school employees and residents would be more comfortable with a local person than Atkinson, an outsider who made no secret of wanting to eventually move on.

Atkinson’s problems proving herself in Lorain continued in DeKalb where some parents questioned before she was hired whether Atkinson could handle moving to an approximately 100,000-student district. After her hiring, a DeKalb County grand jury report accused school board members of compromising the 18-month hiring process.

Atkinson was also hurt by shrinking property values in the county, said DeKalb Schools spokesman Jeff Dickerson. He said accusations that Atkinson had offered former employees jobs to keep them from accessing her emails and text messages were not a factor in her departure.

“The superintendent was frustrated with the inability to affect change, and there were board members who were equally frustrated,” he said. “This is one of those instances where it really is a mutual parting of the ways.”

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