Two new AJC stories on the ongoing Atlanta CRCT cheating scandal reveal not only official resentment of a widening state investigation into the suspected test tampering, but possible subversion of that investigation.
Neither story portrays the system as eager to get to the bottom of where and how cheating occurred and who was responsible. Instead, the leaders seemed more focused on circling the wagons. Whoever takes over for outgoing Superintendent Beverly Hall will inherit a badly wounded and deeply dysfunctional system.
There will need to a total change of leadership at the top since so many officials have been tainted by this scandal. And there must be a rebuilding of trust between the central office and the principals and teachers in the schools.
First, the AJC reported a troubling conference call with principals in which Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine encouraged them to push parents and students to take sides in an escalating school board divide inspired by the allegations of cheating on the CRCT by some APS schools.
If the board didn’t fall in line, Augustine warned, “I will say to you honestly that the chamber and others around the city are talking about erasing board members.”
In statements issued through a spokesman Wednesday, Augustine said she has never told employees to refuse to assist investigators.
Hall said Wednesday she will again tell district leaders they must cooperate with the inquiry and direct them to refrain from commenting on it, the GBI or the cheating scandal.
On Monday, the district reassigned Tamara Cotman, a regional superintendent who supervised about two dozen schools. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a day earlier that Cotman allegedly met with principals last year and advised them to tell GBI agents to “go to hell.” Her lawyer denied Cotman broke any policies or laws.
In the phone call last fall, Augustine did not advocate thwarting the state inquiry. But her high rank — she is second-in-charge to Hall for instructional matters — and disparaging words raise more questions about district leaders’ cooperation with the investigation.
The “calling in of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is what, nothing short of horrific, ” Augustine said in the call. “It is extremely denigrating, it is extremely disrespectful, it is . . . it is just . . . it is just bizarre.”
She went on to say the district will “get through it by doing what we do best and that is educate kids and doing things right, doing things within the law, following policies and just being honest.”
In her e-mailed statement Wednesday, Augustine elaborated: “My reference to ‘horrific’ related specifically to the reaction of many educators to state [GBI] agents who normally investigate felony criminal activity going to schools in the middle of the day to question principals, teachers and staff.”
Augustine’s call took place at the same time the Atlanta school board was asking a Superior Court judge to settle its differences. Five members had voted to replace their chairwoman, who they accused of failing to communicate key information related to the cheating scandal. In addition, GBI agents had just begun visiting Atlanta schools to question educators about tampering.
Augustine told the principals on the call that the five board members’ actions put the district in jeopardy of losing accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The five are generally seen as more willing to question the district administration than the other four members.
Augustine said students and parents “need to be informed” of possible fallout from the board dispute. “So you make it a teachable moment.”
In a second AJC story, APS appears to be thwarting the investigatory team assembled by Gov. Sonny Perdue to look into cheating. Perdue created his own team after deeming the system’s own probe of improbable score gains on the CRCT superficial and unsatisfactory.
State investigators have uncovered what they call a pattern of “intimidating, threatening and retaliating” against Atlanta Public Schools employees who report cheating or other improprieties. In a piercing letter Wednesday to the school system demanding a stop to obstructive practices, investigators suggested the district has acted “to protect those in its ranks who engage in intimidation of potential witnesses to cheating.”
The investigators said they found evidence the district has engaged in such practices for years. But even during the state’s current criminal inquiry into cheating on standardized tests, the investigators said, school officials have allowed principals under suspicion to stand just outside rooms where witnesses were giving statements, “with the obvious intent to make their presence known and to put a chilling effect on the staff member being interviewed.”
The investigators also complained that the district waited two months to reassign a high-level official accused of advising principals to not cooperate with the inquiry and instructing them to write “go to hell” memos to state agents. The delay, investigators said, gave the official time to retaliate against at least one subordinate. And the district suppressed information about its own inquiry into the official’s actions, investigators Mike Bowers, Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde said.
The investigators’ letter — first reported Thursday by Channel 2 Action News — stops barely short of accusing district officials of criminal violation of a state law that prohibits threatening witnesses.
Nevertheless, the letter raises the stakes in an already tense conflict between the district and the state investigators whose inquiry is casting doubts on the schools’ claims of long-term academic achievement.
The investigators told the district to drop plans, announced Monday, to look into excessive wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 16 schools. The state investigation began last summer after then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and other state officials questioned the diligence of the district’s examination of suspicious erasures on the 2009 CRCT in 58 Atlanta elementary and middle schools.
“Any investigation by APS into alleged cheating on the 2010 CRCT, wrong-to-right erasures, possible test tampering and any related issues must cease and desist immediately, ” Bowers, Wilson and Hyde wrote. “As we previously warned you, any such investigation by APS will invariably interfere with and impede the governor’s special investigation into possible test tampering. . . . Any attempt by APS to interfere with our investigation or to conduct its own investigation would be seen as obstruction, an attempt to influence witnesses and tampering with evidence.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog