In February 2010, some of Atlanta’s top business leaders realized they had a problem.
For a decade, they had aligned themselves with Beverly Hall, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. They willingly accepted Hall’s story line of rebirth in an urban school system. They promoted and sometimes exaggerated Hall’s achievements — for her benefit and for their own.
State officials, though, were suggesting gains by Atlanta schools resulted from widespread cheating. Suddenly, the deal between Hall and the business community took on Faustian overtones.
The way business leaders responded underscores their complicity in creating the façade of success that hid a decade of alleged wrongdoing, an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows. Their reaction also hints at the role business executives might take in rebuilding the school district’s reputation amid Hall’s departure and a still-unfolding cheating scandal.
The city’s chamber of commerce and another business group took control of the district’s investigation last year into irregularities on state-mandated tests. Executives at the Metro Atlanta Chamber set the parameters of the inquiry and largely selected the people who ran it. Later, they suggested ways to “finesse” the findings past the governor.
Business leaders published opinion pieces and letters to the editor defending Hall before cheating inquiries were complete; calls for the superintendent to resign, they said, could undermine the district’s progress. And just as they had lobbied almost a decade earlier to give the superintendent more autonomy from the Board of Education, this year they sought new power for the governor to remove recalcitrant board members.
A memo drafted by a chamber executive on Feb. 15 last year laid out the hazards that a cheating investigation might unloose: “This issue has serious implications — on Dr. Hall’s reputation and career, for the principals and administrators who perhaps let lapses occur in testing procedures, and most importantly for the children who may be missing out on critical remediation,” said the memo, obtained recently by the AJC.
But, the document continued: “It also has implications on the business community, many of whom ... are heavy investors, and on the economic development community who touts the superintendent and school board’s recent awards as best in the nation.”
Seventeen months later, a state investigation has revealed that many of the school district’s claims of academic progress were, in fact, based on systemic wrongdoing.
Hall, investigators concluded, “duped” community leaders. “She abused the trust they placed in her. Hall became a subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children. Her image became more important than reality.”
At the same time, investigators wrote, “the possibility of a negative reflection on the Atlanta ‘brand’ caused some to protect Dr. Hall and attack the messengers. ... Somewhere in this process, the truth got lost, and so did the children.”
Few in the business community would speak publicly last week about the investigation, the degree of blame that corporate leaders deserve or even their continued support for the school district. As one executive put it, business leaders are “hunkered down until this stampede runs its course.”
That executive, too, would speak only on condition of anonymity.
The business community’s top spokesman, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, declined to be interviewed. In a statement released Friday, he said: “I am glad the facts are on the table, and I appreciate the hard work of the investigators.”
The “right leadership team” is in place, Williams said, and business leaders will help “in any way we can.”
He did not elaborate.
Williams is one of many business leaders who dialed down their public expressions of support for the school district, and for Hall, when the scale of the cheating became indisputable.
Even some of Hall’s most vocal critics, however, see this backtracking as disingenuous.
“For them to say, ‘Things were out of control,’ it gives me the feeling they are throwing Beverly Hall and others under the bus,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They were there at the invention of this tragedy.”
‘A good investment’
She was the belle of the business community. Fluent in the language of corporate America, she easily wooed Atlanta’s executives and their money.
Beverly Hall made a strong impression when she arrived in Atlanta in 1999. She spoke about “data-driven” school reform and “dashboards” with multiple metrics to track progress by students and teachers alike. Such talk won over executives accustomed to incessantly following sales figures and stock prices, profits and losses.
At Hall’s request, the chamber and other business groups created the Atlanta Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the district. The chamber also reactivated a group that backed candidates for the school board.
Hall’s efforts to engage business leaders succeeded. The education fund and the district collected millions of dollars in grants and donations, most notably $22 million for science education from the General Electric Foundation.
GE’s vice chairman, John Rice, who was based in Atlanta, became one of Hall’s closest confidants. Her emails, obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act, show she frequently consulted Rice on matters large and small. He offered advice on managing stress, for instance, urging her to not read critical editorials.
Volunteering as chairman of the education fund, Rice worked with Hall to solicit corporate gifts. In April 2009, for instance, they appeared together at what the education fund billed as a “cultivation event” for potential donors.
“We at GE believe we have made a good investment,” Rice said, according to remarks that employees of the education fund prepared for the event. “I am committed to making sure other investors feel the same.”
As such relationships matured, Hall could count on her friends in business to rush to her defense. In May 2006, an AJC editorial and a column criticized Hall’s bonuses — $68,300 the previous year — in light of lingering academic deficiencies. Days later, the chief executive of Georgia Power Co. and the president of the UPS Foundation responded with an opinion article asserting that, under Hall, Atlanta was engaged in the most comprehensive school reform in the United States and that the superintendent’s “national honors” had attracted many philanthropic investors.
“School systems, like businesses, must also look at the return on their investment,” wrote Georgia Power’s Mike Garrett and UPS’ Evern Cooper Epps. “Any honest dialogue about salaries must be based on that principle.”
Hall’s corporate friends defended her again in 2008 and 2009, when articles in the AJC challenged the validity of the district’s gains on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. Then, in February 2010, when a state analysis showed a suspicious number of wrong-to-right erasures in 58 Atlanta schools, the business community tried to contain the looming crisis.
Two weeks after the state released its erasure analysis, Williams, the chamber president, wrote a memo detailing how an independent investigation into alleged cheating would play out. The memo even listed most of the members who would be appointed to a panel that came to be known as the Blue Ribbon Commission.
And, the district’s critics say, Williams showed his hand in describing the inquiry’s aim: “We will let the facts from this investigation guide us in our support of Dr. Hall and the next steps the Atlanta Public Schools system needs to take.”
The commission’s 15 members consisted mostly of business executives or others who had done business with the school district or who had other civic or social ties to the district or to Hall.
Among them: GE’s John Rice.
The commission’s final report last summer concluded that major testing irregularities were limited to 12 schools. A few days after the report’s release, Rice and James Bostic, a retired Georgia-Pacific executive and former state school board member, met with Hall and urged her to immediately fire the principals of those 12 schools, according to a report last week in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Hall reportedly declined.
At the same time, questions about the commission’s independence and the thoroughness of its inquiry were casting doubts on its findings. So the chamber and the education fund convened a “communications team” to combat the negative reviews.
On Aug. 5, Renay Blumenthal, a senior vice president at the chamber who had worked with the Blue Ribbon Commission, sent the team an email that laid out a plan to silence skeptics, including then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and school board members who wanted a deeper investigation.
The team, Blumenthal wrote, should focus first on getting Perdue and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to “understand and accept” the commission’s report.
“The media and the rogue board members are annoying and distracting at best,” she wrote, “but what will make us dead in the water is if GOSA and the Gov discredit and/or not accept the report.”
If Perdue’s office accepted the report, she said, “you’ve pulled the stinger out of whatever the media and board members could say next.”
Further, Blumenthal wrote, officials needed to provide a “graceful exit strategy” for Perdue and Hall, suggesting further inquiries be left to the Professional Standards Commission, the state’s teacher licensing agency.
“Let the Gov say the BRC provided a terrific road map that he is referring immediately to the PSC,” Blumenthal wrote. “And then let Hall say she agrees and welcomes the PSC’s involvement and expertise.”
Finally, she suggested appealing to Perdue’s chief of staff and executive counsel.
“The Gov trusts and listens to them,” Blumenthal wrote, “and I think we could finesse this thru them.”
Blumenthal did not respond to a request for an interview last week.
Two weeks after Blumenthal sent the email, Perdue announced that he was dissatisfied with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s work and appointed the special investigators who recently delivered a scathing report to his successor.
The investigators concluded that cheating was widespread and systemic; that more than 170 educators participated; that district officials lied and destroyed and altered government documents to cover up cheating; and that Hall knew or should have known that the achievements that brought her national acclaim resulted from academic fraud.
On March 7, 2010, the Blue Ribbon Commission’s chairman, Gary Price, managing partner in Atlanta of the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said business leaders supported Hall because “reforming Atlanta Public Schools is good for business.”
Three months later, as the commission prepared its report, Price said: “There has been no evidence that there has been any systemwide, systemic effort to cheat or do anything like that on last year’s tests.”
When Price spoke with state investigators, however, he offered a harsher assessment. The school district’s culture, he said, according to the investigators’ report, was “all about perform, perform, perform. ... They were not in balance.”
Price is hardly the only corporate executive who has distanced himself from Hall.
Even John Rice has retreated. Last November, he wrote an article for the AJC dismissing calls for Hall’s resignation. “Beverly Hall’s clear record of achievement shows the gains that can be made with consistent and capable leadership,” he wrote. “She has brought stability, high academic standards, and has created a community of believers in APS.”
Months later, he told state investigators the district “lost its balance between performance and ethics.”
Neither Price nor Rice responded to interview requests.
Now Hall is gone, interim Superintendent Erroll Davis is firing employees accused of cheating, and prosecutors are considering criminal charges. Critics of the district — and of the chamber — say business leaders who assisted Hall also deserve scrutiny.
“This is crying out for a separate investigation,” said John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. “They should be held as accountable as the school authorities.”
But state Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said business people initially supported Hall because when she came to Atlanta, the district was “spiraling downward.” As has happened in other cities, partnerships emerged that allowed businesses to provide expertise to educators.
“Their intent and heart have been in the right place,” Lindsey said. “They have recognized for more than a decade that for us to have the economic development we need, we have to have a viable school system.”
The mistake, he said, was suspending disbelief in the face of unbelievable gains.
“We were so enamored with the perception,” he said, “that we didn’t see the reality.”