Dr. Cheryl Atkinson has been away on bereavement leave since the death of her father on Jan. 23 and has been unavailable for comment.
Former Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond is rumored to be among the candidates to replace Atkinson should she resign. He met with School Board members on Feb. 4 and on his way from the meeting he told WSB-TV, which was waiting outside the building, that he discussed his leadership skills with the board and offered to help in any way that he can.
The school board has been meeting in closed-door executive sessions since last week to discuss “legal and personnel matters.”
This is not the first time that rumors have swirled around Atkinson's departure from the school system but board members have always said they were unfounded.
Atkinson joined the district on Sept. 15, 2011 after a national search to replace Dr. Crawford Lewis, who was indicted on racketeering charges. Her compensation package of $315,200 includes an annual base salary of $275,000; $2,600 a month for expenses for which she does not have to submit reimbursement requests; and a $750-a-month travel allowance, in lieu of an automobile provided and maintained by the district.
Her contract provides for her unilateral termination with 90 days written notice at any time with a three-fourths vote of board members, and severance pay that aggregates the salary she would have earned under the contract, or a sum equivalent to 12 months of her annual base salary, whichever is less.
If Atkinson is on her way out, the reasons were unclear Tuesday whether she is choosing to leave or whether the board wants her gone.
Officially, board members say they’re preparing for their Feb. 21 suspension hearing before the Georgia Board of Education. The state is considering whether to recommend that Gov. Nathan Deal suspend the board for deficiencies pointed out in a Dec. 17 report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
SACS put the board on accreditation probation citing “poor and ineffective leadership governance,” describing the school district as being in “a state of conflict and chaos” with “declining student perfomance” and a “depletion of the financial resources of the county to a position today that is dangerous.”
The probation is one step away from loss of acreditation.
“We’re focused on fulfilling SACS’ ‘required action,’ Board chairman Dr. Eugene Walker said Tuesday. “And we’ve talked to a number of people in our executive sessions about the best ways to accomplish that.”
Walker would not comment on reports that the board has been searching for an interim superintendent to replace Atkinson.
The board held a called meeting Monday to vote on a new chair and vice chair, but Walker announced that it would have to be rescheduled.
“Someone said proper notice had not been taken so the election of our chair and vice chair will be held at our next meeting," he said.
The board failed to give the public 24 hours’ notice of the meeting as required by law. It was the third time the board tried to hold the elections. Members went into executive session shortly afterwards.
For more than a week, lawyers have been seen entering and leaving the closed sessions.
Thurmond spent two hours talking with the board Monday, fueling speculation that he was being interviewed for the interim superintendent job, but he told CrossRoadsNews on Tuesday that the board invited him to the private session. Thurmond wouldn't say whether he and the board discussed the superintendent job.
“I made it clear I was there to help in any capacity I can as an attorney, adviser or other ways," said Thurmond, who lives in Stone Mountain. "I'm a great believer in the power of public education; I'm a product of the schools myself. "
Thurmond said he has the expertise to help the board with the governance issues that caused SACS to put the district on probation. He is credited with turning around the Department of Family and Children's Services as director and improving operations at the Labor Department while commissioner.
District spokesperson Lillian Govus told CrossRoadsNews Monday that Atkinson is still the superintendent, and that the position has not been advertised as "open" as required by law if the county is hiring.