Another APS official disparages cheating probe

Hall's deputy encouraged principals to 'protect yourself'

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall’s deputy blasted the state’s cheating investigation during a rambling conference call with principals last fall.

It is the second incident to come to light in recent days suggesting high-ranking members of Hall’s administration have disparaged the state criminal investigation into possible widespread test-tampering in Atlanta schools during the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Channel 2 Action News obtained a recording of Deputy Supt. Kathy Augustine’s talk with principals in October. In it, Augustine also encouraged principals to push parents and students to take sides in a deepening rift on the school board.

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 their 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.”

She told the principals, “You know, you have to, you know, protect yourself.”

The school board settled the dispute weeks later, after the judge refused to reinstate the ousted board chair. Nonetheless, the accrediting agency put the district on probation last month, citing board governance problems.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber has been an active supporter of Atlanta schools, backing Hall for years and vetting school board members to recommend to voters. Members also helped shape the district’s response to the cheating allegations.

Asked about Augustine’s comments, the chamber issued a statement from banking executive and former chairman Bill Linginfelter: “The voters decide who is on the school board. What we are interested in seeing — like every concerned citizen and organization in Atlanta — is the current board uniting, eliminating discord among its members, and addressing the challenges ahead of it.”