Yes, Beverly Hall deserves to be fired as superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.
But with just four months left on her contract and three months left in the school year, and with no credible replacement available, firing her now wouldn’t make much sense.
Terminating her contract would cost the district too much financially. The process would take valuable time and energy better put to other uses, such as finding a permanent replacement. It would also add political strain on members of an argumentative school board still trying to find a way to work together and avoid a disastrous loss of accreditation.
In a way, it’s remarkable that Hall has lasted this long. Evidence of widespread cheating by district personnel would have been enough to force the ouster of many other superintendents, but Hall’s reputation as an educator and administrator initially protected her.
However, it has been Hall’s dismissive, self-protective reaction to that scandal that has been most disappointing. Rather than confront it directly, she and others in her administration have tried to downplay the controversy and deny its scale.
Amazingly, that seems to have continued. Hall’s top deputy, Kathy Augustine, was taped in an October conference call belittling a state investigation into the scandal as “nothing short of horrific.”
“It is extremely denigrating, it is extremely disrespectful, it is… it is just… it is just bizarre,” she said in the call.
Those remarks have raised questions of possible obstruction into the investigation, but that doesn’t seem justified by the facts. The cheating investigation is limited to elementary and middle schools; Augustine was talking to high school principals not directly involved in the case. While she clearly wasn’t happy about the investigation, that’s not a crime.
On the other hand, it sure would have been nice to hear that kind of anger and outrage from APS leaders directed not at investigators, but at those who chose to change standardized test answers of their students. However bizarre it might be to have GBI investigators interrogating elementary school teachers, APS leaders brought that situation upon themselves.
In the tape, Augustine is also heard questioning the behavior and motives of certain APS board members. After urging the principals to speak out about the situation, Augustine says that “if the only voices the board hears are their own or those who side with them, they will continue with this kind of behavior that may prove very damning to our children and the work of our high schools.”
Criticism of APS board members is not exactly a rare event these days, but it’s a little different coming from a top administrator in a conversation with employees.
The case of Tamara Cotman is more troubling. In a meeting late last year with 12 elementary and middle school principals under her supervision, Cotman reportedly encouraged employees to tell state investigators to go to hell. When APS leaders learned of the meeting, they did not notify investigators or discipline Cotman. In fact, there are serious allegations that Cotman was initially allowed to retaliate against employees she suspected of notifying the district of her behavior.
The full story of that incident is not yet known, but the fact that Cotman felt free to make such statements in the first place confirms the necessity for a change of culture and attitude within APS leadership.
Again, the calendar is a pressing issue. The special prosecutors leading the state investigation — Mike Bowers, Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde — were appointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue back in August. That’s more than six months ago now. As prosecutors, they are naturally inclined to try to make cases, and if they have found evidence of crimes they should of course pursue it.
However, from the beginning the larger purpose of the probe has been to establish some credible version of the truth, so the district can move forward. Prosecuting cases is less important than providing the public a timely explanation of what happened and how.
We already know that attracting strong candidates to replace Hall won’t be easy given the challenges of the district, the threat of certification loss and an occasionally dysfunctional board. The prospect of an ongoing criminal probe, with unknown consequences, only adds to the uncertainty confronting job candidates. The sooner it can be finished, the better for all involved.
– Jay Bookman