Ex-APS official: Hall ordered destruction of documents tied to cheating

Superintendent Beverly Hall ordered the destruction of investigative documents that detailed “systematic” cheating on standardized tests in the Atlanta Public Schools, according to a former high-ranking district official.

Hall also instructed subordinates to omit “adverse findings” from a new version of the report and then publicly cited the revised document in an aggressive rebuttal of the cheating allegations, the former official says.

When she protested, the former official says, her supervisor said the district had the right to “sanitize” the investigation and that “the matter was closed” because Hall “had directed that all other documents be destroyed.”

Destroying or altering government records is a felony in Georgia, carrying a prison sentence of as much as 10 years.

In a statement Tuesday, district officials broadly denied the former official’s allegations.

The accusations appear in a letter to the superintendent from a lawyer representing Colinda Howard, who from 2005 to 2010 headed the district’s internal investigations office. The lawyer was seeking a monetary settlement for Howard, who resigned under pressure after she was accused of making lewd comments to male employees. The lawyer alleged the district investigated Howard as retaliation for her vocal opposition to “illegal and unethical actions she was directed to undertake by her superiors.” The district later cleared Howard and paid her a small settlement.

Lawyers for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of the letter and related documents, which came to light in a criminal investigation of cheating by teachers and school administrators on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. A team of special investigators, appointed last August when state officials found the district’s own inquiry inadequate, is expected to report its findings to Gov. Nathan Deal this month, which could result in prosecutions of district officials. The investigators declined to comment Tuesday.

The inquiry’s conclusion coincides with Hall’s departure after 12 years as superintendent. Amid the cheating scandal, she announced last fall she would not seek an extension of her contract past its June 30 expiration.

Howard’s claims are the most serious that have emerged against Hall during the year-long investigation. Hall denies ordering or even knowing about cheating. In a recent farewell video to district employees, however, she acknowledged that some educators had broken the rules. In a letter to Howard’s lawyer last year, the district’s general counsel denied that any employee “engaged in illegal or unethical conduct related to the development and/or retention of records.”

Howard, who no longer lives in Atlanta, did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview. Her lawyer, Michael Baskin, declined to comment.

In Baskin’s letter to Hall, Howard related irregularities that occurred in the summer of 2008 during CRCT re-testing at a southwest Atlanta elementary school, Deerwood Academy.

Deerwood was among the schools that showed suspiciously large gains when the AJC analyzed the CRCT re-test in the summer of 2008. When the newspaper asked about the increased scores at Deerwood and another school, district officials said they saw no reason to investigate and were satisfied the gains were “valid and defensible.”

Questions about Deerwood surfaced again a few months later when a state examination launched in response to the newspaper’s questions found unusual numbers of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets for the school’s summer re-tests of students who had failed in the spring.

Within a month, Hall sent a letter to state officials saying that the district’s internal and external investigations found no cheating.

“The portion of that investigation focusing on the ‘cheating charge’ is completed and concludes that there is no evidence, no basis in fact, that someone actually altered students’ answers,” Hall’s letter said.

In a December 2010 interview with the AJC, Hall admitted the letter was incorrect. The district had not conducted an internal investigation, and the external inquiry — by Atlanta attorney Penn Payne — wasn’t completed until weeks after Hall sent the letter. Hall said her aides assured her the letter was accurate when she signed.

But Howard, whose office would have conducted any internal investigation, claims that when Payne submitted her report, Hall’s aides edited the document “to amend many of her adverse findings regarding 'systematic’ problems not only at Deerwood Academy, but throughout the school system.”

Similarly, wrote Baskin, Howard’s lawyer, district officials changed a second “final draft” that Payne produced.

When Howard raised legal and ethical concerns with her supervisor, Millicent Few, the district’s human resources director, she “was told that this was not a matter of concern for her,” Baskin’s letter said.

And when Howard asked about an internal investigation, Baskin wrote to Hall, she “was advised that you did not want any further inquiry into the matter. There was never an internal investigation conducted, despite your public representation to the contrary.”

Few did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday.

After Hall announced the internal and external inquiries, the AJC and Channel 2 Action News submitted requests under the state’s Open Records Act for documents related to the investigations.

That request, Baskin wrote, prompted additional concealment of public information.

“Under your authority,” Baskin told Hall, “Ms. Few ordered Ms. Howard to destroy all of Ms. Payne’s preliminary drafts, memoranda and notes.”

In a statement Tuesday, Payne denied that her conclusions about Deerwood Academy were changed “in any material way,” and “I did not amend any adverse findings.” Payne said she is cooperating with the special investigators.

The version of her report released by the district concluded that while Deerwood broke test-procedure rules, Payne found no proof that cheating occurred.

But the media and the public “only received what you and your staff wanted them to have,” Baskin wrote to Hall. “Your representation to the general public, as well as to your board, that there were no systematic problems with processes and protocols was not true. The integrity and findings of Ms. Payne’s report are suspect, to say the least.”

The district also withheld information in 2009 when the AJC asked to review all internal complaints and investigations of test cheating for the previous three years. Few, Baskin said, ordered Howard to “manipulate data” to minimize the number of cases. When Howard complained, Baskin said, Few accused her of not being a “team player.”

Howard’s protests led to a “witch hunt” that culminated with the allegations of her sexually explicit conversations with employees, Baskin said. A lawyer hired by the district found that Howard engaged in inappropriate behavior but was not guilty of harassment. The district paid Howard $30,268 and covered $5,000 of her legal bills, records show. Howard agreed not to speak publicly about the settlement.

The investigation caused Howard “considerable mental pain, anguish and suffering,” Baskin wrote to Hall.

“Ms. Howard was fiercely and blindly loyal to you,” he wrote. “It is clear, however, she cannot continue in her professional capacity.”