APS to teachers: Resign or be fired

Atlanta Public Schools is giving educators accused of cheating one day to resign before taking the first official step to fire them.

Thursday, district officials held individual meetings with educators named in a 400-plus-page state investigation. The accused educators have one day to resign or risk being issued a "charge letter," which outlines why the educator is being fired. The meetings will continue Friday.

The state report, released in July, accused about 180 educators of various levels of cheating, from erasing answers to offering cues with voice inflection. About 120 are still on the APS payroll, while 60 have resigned or retired.

APS is under pressure to resolve the cases before May 15, the deadline for deciding whether to renew teaching contracts. Nonrenewal is tantamount to firing, and the district must be prepared to defend its decision if a teacher requests a hearing to challenge the charges.

A district spokesman said he could not offer details on the meetings because they are personnel matters.

Superintendent Erroll Davis wasn't available for comment Thursday, but said Wednesday the district wants to resolve these cases as quickly as possible.

"I do not intend to issue contracts to anyone who has not been exonerated," Davis said. "I've made a commitment to parents that people who committed cheating, whether knowingly or unknowingly, will not be put in front of children until they are exonerated."

The district is spending $600,000 a month to pay the salaries of educators while they're on administrative leave. Almost $700,000 has been spent in legal fees, and in January APS found it must repay more than $363,000 in federal money earned as a result of falsified test scores.

An email was sent to educators Tuesday with the subject line "mandatory meeting." Not attending could be deemed an act of insubordination and could result in termination, the letter said. More than 60 educators were scheduled for meetings, according to school officials.

Throughout the day, educators filed into APS' downtown headquarters and proceeded through metal detectors into the main building. Many were accompanied by attorneys; some went alone.

One teacher, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal, said there is a “whole lot of professional bullying going on in corporate school systems that most people don’t know about."

The teacher, who taught at Parks Middle, one of the schools where cheating was said to be most rampant, said she left her midday meeting with school officials feeling good about herself. The meeting was very brief and she confirmed that she was given the option of resigning or face firing.

“I feel positive and confident moving forward,” she said. “We are all individuals and every person deserves a right to a hearing. I want to have a tribunal."

The teacher said that since she has been removed from the classroom she has been taking things day-by-day, but has not been looking for another job.

Attorney Mel Goldstein, who said he represents at least 20 educators, said his clients were told resignations would be effective March 15. The final paycheck would be March 20. Many of his clients say they intend to stay on and fight.

It's unclear how educators would benefit from resigning.

Goldstein said some educators might want to avoid having a charge letter on their record. Others may want to resign rather than be fired, for the sake of future employment.

But attorney Gerald Griggs, who represents six educators named in the report, said a resignation from APS is going to raise flags.

"If you resign and you say you worked for APS, people are going to know the resignation is based on cheating," Griggs said. "Especially in this state, it's going to be very hard to get a job when you say you worked for Atlanta Public Schools."

Firing teachers is an expensive and complicated process that could take months to resolve. Teachers with three or more years of employment can only be fired for eight allowable reasons. The teacher can request a tribunal hearing to decide whether the charges are warranted. The decision can be appealed several times, up to the state Supreme Court.

Supporters of employment protection laws say teachers need a shield against unwarranted accusations from angry parents, or from the political maneuvering of meddling school board members.

The educators also face other penalties, such as criminal prosecution or loss of certification. The Professional Standards Commission, which certifies and monitors Georgia educators, has sanctioned 16 educators in the scandal.

Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.

The four outcomes for teachers accused of cheating:

-- Criminal charges could be brought as result of investigations by the Fulton and DeKalb county district attorneys.

-- Firing by APS as result of its own investigation. Teachers can appeal such firings.

-- Decertification by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which is looking at cheating cases.  A certificate is required to teach in the state of Georgia.

-- Cleared of wrongdoing and retained.

What's next:

Educators who met with district officials Thursday have until Friday afternoon to resign, according to attorneys. If they choose to stay, they may be issued "charge letters" by the district, which is the first formal step in the termination process. Educators can request a hearing to dispute the charges against them.

We've been told by attorneys that the educators are being told to resign by tomorrow afternoon or they will receive a charge letter. What's the strategy behind doing this now? What does the district hope to accomplish with this approach? Did the district summon all the folks named in the report who are still on the payroll?