Fulton County prosecutors alleged Monday that a ring of Atlanta Public Schools educators relied upon a “magic elixir” to carry out a test-cheating scandal: a No. 2 pencil with an eraser on the end.
“It was a widespread, cleverly designed conspiracy to illegally inflate test scores and create a false impression of success,” prosecutor Fani Willis told jurors during opening statements kicking off the blockbuster trial. “It was done to the students’ detriment.”
Prosecutors are seeking to convict 12 defendants, ranging from high-ranking administrators to classroom teachers. But Willis devoted a good portion of her opening to a phantom defendant — former Superintendent Beverly Hall.
Using a mantra of “no excuses,” Hall unleashed a chain reaction of unrelenting pressure that pervaded the school system and led educators to cheat on standardized tests, Willis said.
The inflated scores gave a false impression of the academic progress of thousands of students, most of whom were African-American and came from impoverished families and needed the extra help the most. The cheating deprived APS schools of “millions of dollars” in federal aid for tutoring these students, she said.
“They were the biggest losers,” Willis said of the students.
During the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, there were 256,779 wrong-to-right erasures, Willis said. The odds of that happening, she said, were one in a quadrillion — or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000.
Forty-three of the 74 schools in Georgia flagged for severe wrong-to-right erasures were in the APS district, the prosecutor said. “We’re talking about widespread cheating.”
Hall set unrealistic targets, ignored complaints about cheating and then covered it up, Willis said. By using “enablers and intimidators” to carry out the scandal, she became recognized as the 2009 national school superintendent of the year, Willis alleged.
Hall’s lawyers strongly deny the charges against her. She was one of 35 defendants indicted in the scandal but is unable to stand trial at this time because she is receiving treatment for Stage IV breast cancer.
Just the same, her presence loomed Monday. Willis recounted how a desperate school system wooed Hall in 1999 to close a longstanding achievement gap and how she earned $544,472 in bonus money over a decade, on top of her $279,985 salary.
“The state gave a very nice opening in the trial of Beverly Hall,” defense attorney Sandy Wallack, who represents former teacher Dessa Curb, told jurors. “But Beverly Hall is not on trial here.”
Absent Hall’s attendance, prosecutors were left to go down the organizational chart of the remaining defendants: three executive directors, one principal, one assistant principal, two testing coordinators and five teachers.
Wallack was one of seven defense attorneys to tell jurors their clients should be found not guilty at what’s expected to be a months-long trial. Lawyers for five defendants — including ex-School Reform Team executive directors Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis Williams and Michael Pitts — reserved giving their openings until after the prosecution presents its case.
Willis, the lead prosecutor, said the state will call schoolchildren to the witness stand and rely on many of the 21 co-defendants who reached plea deals and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. Hall’s former chief of staff, Sharron Pitts, and former APS general counsel Veleter Mazyck will be prosecution witnesses and testify how the test cheating was covered up, Willis said.
In his opening, defense attorney Keith Adams, who represents former Dunbar Elementary second-grade teacher Diane Buckner-Webb, agreed a crime had been committed and there was indeed a conspiracy.
“I’m charging and accusing the DA’s office of engaging in the conspiracy,” Adams said. The district attorney is relying on witnesses whose credibility is “beyond belief” because they have given markedly differing statements over the course of the investigation, he said.
“That was the magic elixir to allow the conspiracy to move forward,” he said.
Adams’ hard-edged delivery was followed by Hurl Taylor, a Vietnam War veteran who ambled forward carrying a camouflaged backpack. Trying a more folksy approach, Taylor pulled a camouflaged sheet and draped it over his head to remind jurors his client is cloaked in the presumption of innocence.
“Don’t be snowed by a bunch of numbers out there,” said Taylor, who represents former testing coordinator Donald Bullock.
Defense attorney Bob Rubin put a photo of Disney movie antagonist Cruella de Vil on an overhead screen to show how prosecutors view his client, former Dobbs Elementary principal Dana Evans.
“Dana Evans never condoned or encouraged cheating,” Rubin said, putting jurors on notice that he plans to call more than 20 witnesses to vouch for Evans’ character.
“She was honest,” he said. “She was ethical. She was a role model, a visionary.”
The trial is being conducted in the large ceremonial courtroom to accommodate all the defendants. During their openings, two lawyers brought their clients from the back rows to right in front of the jury so jurors could actually see them.
The first day of the trial did not start off without a hitch. One woman juror from north Fulton County said that after finding out she had been picked for service, she realized there would be some days she would arrive to court late and there would be other days she’d have to leave early to pick up her teenage son from school.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, who was not pleased to hear this, said this was unacceptable and then excused her from further service. There are now 12 jurors and 10 alternate jurors in the case.
Before opening statements, Baxter thanked prosecutors and defense attorneys for how well they’d all gotten along during more than six weeks of jury selection. He said he hoped they would all be friends after the trial was concluded.
But Baxter, who does not like wasting time, said he hopes he does not have to hand out the “Dubious Achievement Award.” The judge then pulled out a white T-shirt he had specially made over the weekend and held it up for all to see.
“Help I’m talking and I can’t shut up,” read the ironed-on black letters, Baxter’s none-too-subtle directive for lawyers to keep it simple and get to the point.
Testimony in the case begins Tuesday.
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