APS braces for fallout from investigation

District weighs impact on classrooms, donors

National attention on a state report castigating Atlanta Public Schools for a deeply embedded culture of cheating, cover-ups and obstruction increased the pressure Wednesday on local school officials.

They must decide starting today how the beleaguered district will deal with the fallout in its classrooms, in the larger Atlanta community and among national donors.

Those efforts, however, will coincide with a strident defense by former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall, who “most definitely did not know of any widespread cheating” on standardized tests in 2009 or any other year, her lawyer said.

Meanwhile, teachers and others who work in the district or watch it closely said they hope the report’s release, nearly a year in the making, allows it to move on.

The most generous among of APS’ donors, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, set the tone Wednesday when it said it continues to support APS and the work it funds.

“The work we fund is making a difference for teachers and their students, and while we take this situation seriously, it shouldn’t prevent the district from doing what’s best for students,” said Christopher Williams, the foundation’s press secretary.

The Gates Foundation first awarded APS $10.5 million in 2007 to redesign the city’s high schools. Last year, it bestowed an additional $10 million in an ongoing effort to overhaul the city’s recruitment and support of teachers.

“The vast majority of the district’s educators, administrators and students have all worked hard to overcome great odds and earn stellar results,” Williams said.

It will take months for the report’s consequences to be known. What happens will play on a national stage as well as locally, as lawmakers and experts debate the scandal’s effects on efforts to emphasize testing as a measure of teachers’ performance.

The cheating scandal was first reported more than two years ago by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but by Wednesday, the report was among the most popular stories on websites and blogs coast to coast, including The Christian Science Monitor, Education Week and Freakonomics.com.

In coming days and weeks, authorities in three counties will decide about possible criminal charges. Lying to investigators and destroying or altering public records are felonies under Georgia law with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission, a state agency that polices state teaching credentials, will receive over the next several days the names of nearly 180 Atlanta educators implicated in the scandal.

It expects to begin reviewing those cases starting in September, with possible action on cases continuing at least until year’s end, said Gary Walker, who leads the agency’s educator ethics division.

Sanctions by the commission can range from a reprimand to loss of a teaching license.

APS interim Superintendent Erroll Davis vowed Tuesday that none of those implicated will teach in APS again.

“It was an unusual thing — either you went along with it or you knew your time with the school system would be limited,” APS teacher Ramon Reeves said of the district and Hall, whose last day was June 30 after 12 years leading the district.

Released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal, the report said Hall blindly stressed annual academic targets by whatever means necessary, ignoring mounting evidence of misconduct over the last decade and willfully hindering the investigation by destroying or altering complaints.

More than 800 pages in length, the report names 178 educators, including 38 principals, as participants in cheating, including erasing and correcting mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

More than 80 confessed. The investigators said they confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 schools they examined.

Hall’s attorney, however, said in a statement Wednesday there was no direct evidence to show she knew widespread cheating had occurred.

“Apparently, not one of the 82 persons who allegedly ‘confessed’ to cheating told the investigators that Dr. Hall at any time instructed, encouraged or condoned cheating,” the attorney, Richard Deane, said. “The report’s conclusion that Dr. Hall actually knew of any such cheating is based entirely on supposition. The further conclusion that Dr. Hall ‘should have known’ rests on negative inferences from selective, circumstantial evidence.”

Reeves, who is president of the Atlanta Association of Educators, did not question the report. “It was that ‘by-all-means-necessary’ thing,” he said. “It was a lot of pressure.”

The group, which is an advocacy group and not a union, has helped find legal help for teachers caught up in the probe.

It has repeatedly stressed that the state should focus on school leaders and their tactics, instead of rank and file staff, because of pressure on teachers to meet academic targets.

“It should not have come as a surprise,” said Patrick Crabtree, an APS elementary school teacher and longtime advocate. “Over the years, employees that have spoken out have been humiliated and retaliated against to the point they resigned or were terminated. Dr. Hall and [former deputy superintendent Kathy] Augustine created this oppressive climate. The report confirms this.”

School board members meet at noon today to receive a proposal from Davis about what they and the district should do next. Of the district’s 6,000 employees, some 3,000 are teachers.

Newly retired as University System of Georgia chancellor, Davis is expected to lead a purposeful response to the findings.

The board, after months of public bickering that threatens the district’s accreditation, appears to be coming together to deal with the crisis. What it does now is crucial as the district looks ahead.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.