The former school district of DeKalb County Schools superintendent Cheryl Atkinson is operating under a warning by the state of Ohio and a $12 million deficit.
The Lorain City School Board in Ohio voted March 29 to approve a plan to cut 182 positions within the district—51 teachers in grades 1-12; 10.5 kindergarten teaching spots; 21 non-classroom teachers because of cuts in grants; and 100 support staff and administrative jobs.
The Ohio Department of Education has placed the district under fiscal caution, according to Ohio DOE spokesman Patrick Galloway. There are three fiscal categories in which a district can be placed and fiscal caution is the least serious, Galloway said.
“It requires them to work closely with our financial specialists and to address a five-year forecast that creates responsible spending,” Galloway said.
The Lorain district has been under fiscal caution since June 23, 2007, but some districts have been in the category for 10 years, Galloway said. Atkinson began her tenure in Lorain in 2007.
DeKalb County School District spokesman Walter Woods defended Atkinson’s tenure in Ohio in a statement.
“The DeKalb County School District is looking forward, not backward. Our focus is on enhancing student performance in DeKalb, not in other school districts,” according to the statement.
“In her three years in Lorain, Dr. Atkinson instituted a number of achievements. And it was her record of achievement at a troubled school district that attracted the attention of the DeKalb County Board of Education.
“In just six months, she has met and exceeded the expectations of DeKalb parents and the board. Dr. Atkinson will be judged on how she improves schools in DeKalb, not elsewhere,” according to the statement.
According to the past four Ohio DOE report cards on the Lorain School District, minimal academic improvement was made over the previous four school years. In the 2007-08 school year, the district met four of 30 indicators, which measure achievement in grades three-12 in various subjects. The indicators also measure graduation test results, graduation rates and attendance. It had a performance rating of 77.8 out of 120 points.
For the 2008-09 school year, the district met three of 30 state indicators. The district had a performance rating of 78.6.
For the 2009-10 school year the district met one of 26 state indicators and had a performance rating of 78.1. The district was under academic watch during both of those school years.
The district met five of 26 indicators in 2010-11 and was graded “continuous improvement” by the Ohio DOE.
“It looks like they’ve been toggling between academic watch and continuous improvement for a while,” Galloway said.
Because of the economy, Galloway said, many districts in Ohio have struggled in recent years. “Unfortunately, a lot of districts in Ohio are going the same way,” said Galloway, who added that Atkinson may have inherited some of the district’s financial and academic issues.
Academic watch is the fourth-lowest of five designations used by the Ohio DOE.
The Lorain school district is less than one-tenth the size of DeKalb’s 100,000-student district, but there are similarities with demographics and economics. For the 2010-11 school year, the Lorain school district was 30.9 percent Hispanic, 28 percent White, 28 percent Black and 13 percent multi-racial, according to the district’s website. The site also states that 85.6 percent of the district’s students are “economically disadvantaged.”
Voters in the Lorain school district last year voted down a tax increase to help fund the school district.
According to Woods, “Lorain City Schools in Ohio is a district that has historically faced significant financial and academic challenges that do not stem from Dr. Atkinson’s tenure.
“The system had laid off a third of its staff only months before her tenure. The system had never made AYP,” according to the statement. “And the community has not raised local taxes to fund the school system in more than 20 years.
“During her time in Lorain, Dr. Atkinson and her team balanced the budget, raised the graduation rate and brought the system’s high school to meet state achievement standards for the first time since the implementation of Ohio’s accountability model.”
Lorain’s graduation rate for the 2007-8 school year was 78.5 percent, according to the Ohio DOE report card, and the rate was 80.7 percent in 2010-11. The highest rate under Atkinson was 84.7 percent for the 2009-10 school year. The state requirement is 90 percent and the state average during Atkinson’s tenure was roughly 84 percent.
“She brought computer labs, music, art and physical education to every elementary school. She implemented a program to give ebooks to every middle and high school student. Through a partnership with NASA, she started an aeronautics course in middle school, the first of its kind for middle schools in Ohio,” Wood’s statement said. “In a district with only one foreign language, she restored foreign language programs and started the first Mandarin Chinese full immersion pre-school program in an urban school system in Ohio.”
Woods did not allow Atkinson to be interviewed for this article and board chairman Gene Walker did not return a phone call seeking comment.