District plans to turn over confidential material in cheating probe

Atlanta school board members Monday voted to waive legal privacy rights in connection to a high-profile cheating scandal, a signal the district once criticized for its secrecy is now attempting to fully cooperate with a criminal investigation.

About 20 computer hard drives of information between board members, senior-level employees and staff attorneys will be turned over to the grand jury, said Superintendent Erroll Davis. The information was requested as part of two expansive subpoenas submitted by the Fulton County Grand Jury.

"I believe it suggests the board understands it must provide the information necessary to bring this matter to a close, and was willing to take the risk of waiving the attorney-client privilege in order to do that" Davis said.

Friday, Atlanta Public Schools administrators handed over some of the subpoenaed records to the grand jury, which is investigating the test-cheating scandal and could ultimately decide whether criminal charges are warranted. The same day, the district received an additional subpoena for the hard drives, Davis said.

The confidential attorney-client information was waived at the request of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and is limited to the scope of the testing investigation, Davis said. Davis, who took office July 1 after longtime school chief Beverly Hall retired, said he did not know what the hard drives contained.

Last week, three APS officials turned over to the grand jury 95 volumes of DVDs, CDs and cassette tapes, responding to the first subpoena issued Aug. 12. The school system is asking for three more weeks to compile outstanding records. The district attorney said Monday he would allow the extension.

The second subpoena asked for the computer hard drives of several employees who emerged as key figures in the state's testing investigation, including Hall, her top lieutenants, principals and employees. The grand jury also asked for copies of settlements and/or confidentiality agreements between the district and employees or representatives.

Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Steve Sadow said the board’s waiver of the attorney-client privilege is a sign it is fully cooperating with the investigation.

“It’s not terribly unusual,” Sadow said. “Major corporations do it all the time when they are under investigation. They want to show the prosecution they’ve come to grips with their problem.”

The Fulton probe follows an investigation by special investigators appointed a year ago by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue into test cheating. Their report found that 178 educators were linked to cheating on standardized tests. The investigators accused top school officials of destroying or altering complaints about misconduct, trying to hinder the investigation and lying to investigators.

The state investigation, the findings of which were released last month, also concluded that cheating occurred at 44 schools and that Hall knew or should have known about it. She has strongly denied that allegation.

In other developments, the board approved the hire of Karen Waldon as deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, one of the district's most important positions. Waldon is currently an assistant superintendent for Henry County Schools, and will fill the post formally held by Kathy Augustine.

Augustine was accused of illegally withholding public documents, making false statements and "aiding and abetting" Hall in "falsifying, misrepresenting or erroneously reporting the evaluation of students" on state exams. She denied any wrongdoing, but the implication cost her the superintendent job with the DeSoto (Texas) Independent School District.

More than 200 people applied for the position. Waldon is expected to start next month.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.