School Board Gives Away the Farm

On a 6-3 vote earlier today, the DeKalb County Board of Education voted to hire Dr. Cheryl Atkinson to be the new superintendent of schools. Board members Nancy Jester, Pam Speaks, and Don McChesney voted against the choice. All others voted in favor.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to call or e-mail the school board members about the proposed contract for Dr. Atkinson. Click here and here to read my previous messages on the subject.

I hope Dr. Atkinson turns out to be a good superintendent. However, the contract that is bringing her to DeKalb County reveals that our school board has learned nothing from its colossal failures with two recent superintendents, Crawford Lewis (who was indicted) and Johnny Brown (who was dismissed).

As I showed you in one of my previous messages, Dr. Atkinson’s contract contains the following “termination for convenience” clause requiring a vote by three-fourths (3/4) supermajority of the school board in order to terminate her if her performance is sub-par:

“The BOARD, upon a three-fourths (3/4) vote of its members, may at its option unilaterally terminate this Contract for its convenience by giving the SUPERINTENDENT a minimum of ninety (90) days written notice of termination at any time. In the event of such termination, the BOARD shall pay to the SUPERINTENDENT severance pay, either all of the aggregate salary she would have earned under this Contract from the actual date of termination to the termination date set forth in this Contract, or a sum equivalent to twelve (12) months of the annual base salary as stated in Paragraph 4 of this Contract, whichever is less.”

In responding to citizen concerns about this clause, a couple of school board members chose to hide behind a subsequent clause of the contract, the “termination for cause” provision, which reads:

“Termination for cause shall constitute conduct which is seriously prejudicial to the District, including but not limited to, neglect of duty, or breach of contract. Notice of termination for cause shall be given in writing and the SUPERINTENDENT shall be entitled to appear before the BOARD to discuss such causes. If the SUPERINTENDENT chooses to be accompanied by legal counsel at such meeting, if allowed in closed, executive session under applicable law, she shall bear any costs therein involved. Such meeting shall be conducted in closed, executive session unless specifically prohibited by State law. The SUPERINTENDENT shall be provided a written decision describing the results of the meeting.”

The concept of termination for cause is a breeding ground for litigation. It is unclear what, short of a criminal indictment, would constitute a sufficient basis for invoking this provision.

The provision that is most likely to be invoked is the termination for convenience clause, the one with the three-fourths restriction. It is odd for a government entity to contract away its right to take an action by simple majority vote. I’m not 100% convinced that the three-fourths restriction would pass legal muster if challenged in court.

Dr. Atkinson’s contract already includes high compensation, abundant fringe benefits, and an overly generous “golden parachute” if the termination for convenience clause is invoked. If you couple the generosity of these provisions with a three-fourths barrier to termination, the school board has gone too far.

In 2012, the DeKalb school board will shrink from nine to seven members. Right now, all it will take is three of nine board members to keep a lackluster superintendent in place. After the board membership is reduced to seven, just two members can prevent our school system from moving forward.

It’s easy to see how a superintendent and very small minority of school board members could abuse the three-fourths provision. Let’s hope it never comes to that, but the fact that the contract allows this to happen is an unfortunate byproduct of the decisions that have brought Dr. Atkinson to DeKalb.

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