Atlanta teacher bonus payments revealed

If they did it, cheating didn't pay well for most of the Atlanta educators charged with crimes, whose bonuses totaled as little as $750 and averaged $2,600. The exception was Superintendent Beverly Hall, whose bonus pay reached about $365,000 since 2005, when an indictment alleges criminal activity began.

The bonus money forms the backbone of the criminal case against the former teachers and administrators, who are accused of inflating student test scores for profit and to avoid being fired. They face potential sentences of up to 20 years on racketeering counts and 15 years on theft counts.

Explore» Read more about the APS cheating scandal

Just how much bonus money the school district paid to each defendant was revealed in an Atlanta Public Schools document obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act.

As the leader of the school district, Hall collected more than five times as much bonus pay as the other 34 defendants combined, whose bonuses added up to about $68,150 over five years. In all, Hall received more than $580,000 in extra pay in the dozen years she was superintendent.

Attorneys for the defendants said the bonuses, which were distributed to all employees at schools that met academic targets, weren’t large enough to compel teachers to cheat.

Yearly bonus amounts started at $500 for certified staff at schools that met at least 70 percent of their targets and reached a maximum of $2,000 at schools that met all of their targets, according to an incentive pay scale document for the 2008-2009 school year.

“Nobody stole anything. They were given something, but they didn’t steal it,” said Warren Fortson, who represents former Benteen Elementary testing coordinator Theresia Copeland. “I find that hardly a motive.”

Copeland collected a total of $3,500 in bonus pay after her school met targets in 2006, 2008 and 2009, according to the school district’s records.

“The money was given to a school, and the school distributed it, so I don’t see how it’s theft,” said Gerald Griggs, who represents former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson and former Parks Middle School teacher Starlette Mitchell. “Those particular charges are egregious and over the top.”

Williamson and Mitchell each received a total of $3,000 in bonus pay for their schools’ achievements in 2007 and 2008, records show.

Educators at schools that met their targets were honored at yearly rallies at the Georgia Dome, where they were seated near Hall at the front of the crowd and low scorers were pushed to the fringes of the audience.

The bonus program ended immediately after Superintendent Erroll Davis took over leadership of Atlanta Public Schools in July 2011, a few days before a state investigative report was released, said school district spokesman Stephen Alford. The school district hasn't tried to recover bonus payments received by educators involved with cheating.

The report accused 178 educators of participating in cheating on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, often by erasing students' incorrect answers. The state investigation followed an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis that found suspicious gains in test results.

Hall’s bonuses were awarded annually based on whether she met performance goals established by the Atlanta school board. Academic achievement, including test scores, played a large role, but other factors such as teacher training, public outreach and reducing absenteeism also were parts of the formula.

“The vast majority of these benchmarks had nothing to do with the CRCT results. Further, APS teachers were eligible for small bonuses of which only a few hundred dollars were based on test results,” said an April 22 statement from Hall’s lawyers.

The statement cites the state investigation, which said that monetary bonuses provided little incentive for educators to cheat. Instead, investigators found that “fear of termination and public ridicule” caused them to cross ethical lines.

The goals required to receive a bonus were higher than those set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which distributed incentives as a reward for making “adequate yearly progress” for three years in a row.

Atlanta Public Schools repaid more than $363,000 of that money to the state last year after the Georgia Department of Education determined that schools where cheating occurred actually did not make adequate yearly progress.

“We wanted any of it back that schools got because of scores that were unwarranted,” said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Top five bonus earners

Check out Friday’s and Saturday’s editions of the AJC for coverage of the first court hearings for the 35 former Atlanta educators facing criminal charges. Follow developments throughout the day at MORE: For updates and archival stories in the Cheating Our Children series, click on the photos.

Beverly Hall
Total Bonuses: $364,398

Sandra Ward
Parks Middle
Testing coordinator
Total Bonuses: $5,500

Christopher Waller
Parks Middle
Total Bonuses: $5,000

Gregory Reid
Parks Middle
Assistant principal
Total Bonuses: $5,000

Theresia Copeland
Benteen Elementary
Testing coordinator
Total Bonuses: $3,500
Source: Atlanta Public Schools