Atlanta school board to meet on cheating response

Atlanta school board members will meet Monday with Superintendent Beverly Hall about how she and her staff handled both the system's response to an ongoing state cheating probe and actions by top aides that drew a piercing rebuke last week by investigators.

The meeting follows reports that two high-ranking Atlanta Public Schools officials have over the past several months disparaged the investigation, which involves possible widespread test-tampering in schools during the state's 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

It also follows a sharply worded letter sent by the investigators that alleged a pattern of "intimidating, threatening and retaliating" against employees who report cheating or other improprieties.

In a statement e-mailed Friday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, school board Chairman Khaatim Sherrer El said Hall "has on several occasions reiterated her expectation that all APS employees fully cooperate with the state investigation." The board, he said, "has affirmed this position. The board and Superintendent Hall will be discussing both issues further."

The board on Monday is expected to discuss possible action related to the administration's cooperation with the state investigation, El said. That may include setting an explicit policy of full cooperation that goes beyond simply affirming what Hall said.

The board also will meet behind closed doors to talk about personnel matters. "The recent activities and statements attributed to Deputy Superintendent Dr. Kathy Augustine and Executive Director Tamara Cotman are ... being handled in accordance with established district policies and procedures," El said.

Both system employees are legally entitled to due process; they do not report directly to the board -- only the superintendent does -- and members cannot summarily dismiss them.

The AJC reported last week that Cotman, a regional superintendent who supervised about two dozen schools, 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.

A day after the report was published, Cotman was reassigned to the system's English-as-a-second-language department until an investigation is finished.

Days later, Channel 2 Action News obtained a recording of Augustine encouraging principals in October to push parents and students to take sides in a deepening rift on the school board. In a statement last week, Augustine said she has never told employees to refuse to assist investigators.

Some board members, however, are worried. “There really appears to be some real evidence ... that there was a fair amount of collusion and plotting and disparaging the board,” school board member Yolanda Johnson said last week.

Johnson also said she was unhappy with remarks made by Augustine in a conference call last fall with a group of principals in which she criticized the five members who voted out the school board chair, including Johnson.

Meanwhile, a state official has warned the district not to investigate this year’s test results.

Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, sent a letter Tuesday to Hall, telling her the district needed to wait for state investigators to finish before taking an internal look at erasures.

“I am concerned that such an investigation would interfere with the thorough work well under way by the special investigators into possible test tampering,” Mathers wrote in the letter obtained by the AJC.  “APS should refrain from conducting any such investigation until the state’s investigation is finished.”

Hall replied in a letter Wednesday, denying the district planned to investigate, but saying that it would be “conducting an analysis of the 2010 erasure data.”

Whatever it decides to do, the board is being watched closely.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools blamed the board entirely when it placed the system on accredited probation in January, in part for not following its own rules and policies. The board faces a Sept. 30 deadline to make substantive progress toward regaining full accreditation.

A SACS spokeswoman said Friday the agency is monitoring the board's actions.