AJC Archives: ‘The art of war’ at Atlanta Public Schools

The book that lay on Beverly Hall’s desk through years of acclaim and reproach at the Atlanta Public Schools contained neither business-school bromides nor educational platitudes.

It was “The Art of War.”

The millennia-old, pre-Machiavellian classic, by the Chinese general Sun-Tzu, lays out strategies for prevailing in any conflict through ruthless efficiency. Its eternal presence on her desk underscores Hall’s approach to her dozen years as Atlanta’s school superintendent: Schools were a battlefield. Test scores were weapons. Defeat was not an option.

An indictment issued Friday charging Hall and 34 other Atlanta educators with racketeering and other crimes sends the former superintendent into a new battle — this one in a courtroom. The case asks the court to render judgment not just on Hall and the other defendants, but also on the aggressive, sometimes-intimidating management style that she, her top advisers and their subordinates propagated for years.

A Fulton County grand jury accused Hall, other administrators, teachers and even a school secretary of participating in a criminal conspiracy to juice the district’s standardized-test scores for financial gain and professional recognition. By pushing subordinates to meet unrealistic performance targets, the grand jury alleged, Hall and a few of her most trusted advisers transformed a public school district, albeit one with a history of poor performance, into a criminal enterprise in which the primary victims were children.

Hall, 66, the national superintendent of the year in 2009, could face 45 years in prison.

Even setting aside criminal culpability, the indictment portrays a workplace with a toxic culture in which leaders routinely sacrificed their integrity to preserve the district’s image, not to mention Hall’s. Desired results, no matter how unlikely, drew little skepticism, grand jurors found. Truth-telling, on the other hand, could result in severe punishment. Employees who reported cheating put their jobs in jeopardy, and the indictment recounts an episode in which Hall lightly punished a cheating teacher but fired the whistleblower.

Through her lawyers, Hall denied the charges, as did other defendants, and the indictment provides no direct evidence that Hall ordered district employees to cheat on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT. But it states that Hall did little or nothing to ferret out cheaters, and it alleges the superintendent and others took extreme actions to cover up wrongdoing.

“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu wrote.

If the indictment is accurate, Beverly Hall took his words to heart.

High fidelity

Judging by appearances alone, when Hall came to Atlanta in 1999, she could have been any mid-level educational bureaucrat. She was soft-spoken and quick to smile – grandmotherly, some said, even though she had no grandchildren at the time.

In private, though, Hall displayed a toughness that left few employees wondering what she expected of them, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

She assembled the district’s principals in 1999 and declared that she would eventually get rid of 90 percent of them. “I know how to swim with the sharks,” she said, an apparent reference to her decades surviving the political battles of school districts in New York City and Newark, N.J.

At the Atlanta district’s central office downtown on Trinity Avenue, Hall occupied a suite on the top floor, but even employees who worked in the building needed a special badge or help from a security guard to activate the elevator that ascended to the superintendent’s level.

Away from the office, she was accompanied by her district-paid driver and security guard. The former police officer earned more than $50,000 a year, plus that much again in overtime pay. Hall said she needed the driver for her protection.

Early in her tenure, the indictment suggests, Hall began pushing for higher test scores.

“APS principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated,” the indictment said.

Before long, this became “unreasonable pressure” that caused educators to break the rules, the indictment said. Cheating became “more and more prevalent,” the grand jury wrote, so that by 2009, it was occurring in a majority of the Atlanta elementary and middle schools that administered the CRCT.

Rather than giving direct orders, Hall often let top advisers take the lead in carrying out her wishes, said Joe Manguno, a former press spokesman for the district. He recalled a meeting in which Hall sat back while an aide urged her to fire a particular principal. Ultimately, she agreed.

“Hall was never out front, but they knew what she wanted,” said Manguno, who lost his job with the district in 2009 after he clashed with a supervisor. “So she let them propose these things, and she went along with it.”

This tactic helped insulate Hall from the consequences of decisions. Still, Manguno said, Hall remained sensitive to public opinion, often grilling him for information about incidents she feared would generate unflattering news stories.

Above all, he said, Hall demanded total fidelity.

“Everything was based on loyalty to her,” he said. If she suspected a betrayal, he said, “you were done.”

The inner circle

Hall cultivated a small circle of people with whom she met, typically behind closed doors, to talk through major decisions, according to former employees. Over the years, she spent much less time with principals, teachers and parents. Even elected officials complained that it took too long to get an appointment with the superintendent.

The closest of Hall’s aides was Kathy Augustine, a deputy superintendent. She followed Hall from Newark to Atlanta and, within a year, became the second-in-command. She ran the district for a month in 2004 while Hall was on sick leave. She also frequently served as a surrogate for the superintendent, defending the district against criticism in the media and promoting its accomplishments at conferences across the country.

Augustine publicly brushed aside early allegations that the district had a cheating problem.

“I don’t have any reason to look at that,” she said after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter asked her about extreme, abnormal test-score swings in Atlanta schools in 2009. “We expect outliers every year.”

In 2011 a state investigation alleged that Augustine made false statements and misrepresented the status of a cheating inquiry in a letter to state officials. She denied those claims.

When the indictment came out Friday, Augustine’s name was missing. She was listed as neither a defendant nor a participant in any of the acts that comprised the alleged conspiracy. Neither was Sharron Pitts, Hall’s longtime chief of staff.

The 2011 investigation identified 178 educators who cheated. About half of them confessed. The indictment, however, charged far fewer people: 14 teachers, five testing coordinators, an instructional coach and a secretary, along with seven principals, two assistant principals and Hall and four of her high-ranking administrators.

The indictment said some school employees were not charged because of “their confessions, cooperation and truthful testimony.” It does not, however, address which educators, if any, assisted the grand jury. Why some top administrators were charged, but not others, remains unclear.

Another aide to Hall, however, figures prominently in the case.

Millicent Few, the district’s former human resources chief, was charged with lying to state investigators, ignoring cheating allegations and ordering subordinates to destroy public documents that contained complaints about cheating. Few’s name appears second on the indictment’s cover page, just beneath Hall’s.

Grand jurors said Few ordered an employee to destroy early drafts of an investigation of cheating at Deerwood Academy in 2008 — and watched to make sure the subordinate shredded each page.

Few came to Atlanta early in Hall’s tenure from Washington, D.C., and quickly became one of the superintendent’s confidantes. Her quick rise riled other top aides, said Manguno, the former press spokesman.

“They said she had far too much influence for an HR director,” Manguno said.

Few has not publicly responded to the criminal charges.

Just outside Hall’s inner circle, another group of high-ranking officials often served as the enforcers of the superintendent’s accountability system, making sure schools did whatever was necessary to meet ever-changing targets for test scores and other performance measures.

Three of these area supervisors, each of whom oversaw about two dozen schools, face criminal charges: Tamara Cotman, Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams.

The indictment accused Davis-Williams of covering up a report of cheating from a testing monitor at Perkerson Elementary School. She allegedly ordered the monitor to change his report.

Pitts and Cottman were accused of intimidating subordinates with the aim of hindering the investigation into cheating. The indictment alleged that while special investigators were questioning educators about cheating in 2010, Pitts went to a staff meeting at Parks Middle School and warned that if staffers admitted knowing anything, “they would only get themselves in trouble.”

George Lawson, a lawyer representing the three area supervisors, said they are innocent and plan to fight the charges.

“I can assure you they were not a part of some grand scheme, some pseudo-enterprise as related to testing,” Lawson said. “Not by any stretch of the imagination have they done that.”

‘Something to fear’

Far from Hall’s inner circle, in schools across the city, teachers and other employees heard a clear message: produce higher test scores to meet the standard known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or face the consequences.

“There was this culture throughout the entire district that Hall ruled with an iron fist,” Carmen Dixon, who was a paraprofessional at Beecher Hills Elementary in 2009 when cheating allegedly occurred, said in an interview.

“When testing time came,” Dixon said, “it was if you didn’t meet AYP, there was something to fear.”

Hall rarely appeared in schools — unless a school was receiving recognition for hitting a performance target.

“Glad she finally made it to our school,” teachers and others would say, according to Dixon.

They meant it sarcastically, she said.