Former Gideons educator contradicts principal’s testimony

Armstead Salters, former principal of C.L. Gideons Elementary School, leaves the courtroom after his plea hearing in December. Salters was the first principal to plead guilty in the APS cheating case. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Caption
Armstead Salters, former principal of C.L. Gideons Elementary School, leaves the courtroom after his plea hearing in December. Salters was the first principal to plead guilty in the APS cheating case. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

4:45 p.m.

The former testing coordinator at Gideons Elementary School testified Wednesday that her former principal directed her to give teachers access to standardized tests and answer sheets so cheating could occur.

The principal, Armstead Salters, would slam his fist on his desk when giving such directives, Sheridan Rogers testified during the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial.

Rogers recollection of what occurred strongly contradicted testimony given Tuesday by Salters, who said that never happened.

Salters emphasized that test-cheating needed to continue shortly before Gideons’ students took the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Rogers testified.

At that time, Rogers said she told Salters that cheating, which had occurred at Gideons for years, needed to stop.

“I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ Come on now,” Rogers said she told Salters. “But he got a little puffy with me. I said, ‘Calm down. I got ya.’”

Rogers said she also told her principal, “But I’m sick of it.”

Rogers said she then allowed teachers to come and get the standardized tests and answer sheets after students turned them in so wrong answers could be changed to right ones.

2:30 p.m.

A career educator on Wednesday testified about how he and fellow teachers met at a colleague’s house and corrected students’ test answers long into the evening.

Oliver Banks, a former fifth-grade teacher at Gideons Elementary School, said he and at least three other educators spent several days changing answers after students finished taking the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. They met at the Douglasville home of fellow fifth-grade teacher Bernadine Macon, who served fish and grits for the occasion, Banks said.

Banks said they placed transparencies with bubbled-in circles corresponding with correct answers over students’ answer sheets to find out which answers were wrong. Then they erased the wrong answers and filled in the right ones, Banks said.

“I know it was wrong,” the 76-year-old man testified, at times pausing when overcome with emotion. “I really know it was wrong.”

Banks began his 49-year-long teaching career at Gideons in 1961. He left the school after the cheating scandal was exposed.

“I was humiliated,” Banks testified. “I felt bad about what I’d done. … I could not stand it and stay there and face those people every day knowing I’d done what I did.”

When the governor’s special investigators, assisted by GBI agents, began investigating the cheating scandal, Gideons principal Armstead Salters called in the group of fifth-grade teachers for a meeting, Banks testified. Salters wanted the teachers to be prepared when investigators visited the school, Banks said.

“They can’t prove that,” Salters said, referring to the test-cheating, Banks testified. “Stick with the plan.”

The “plan,” Banks said, was not to divulge cheating had occurred.

When a GBI agent initially interviewed him, Banks said, he stuck to the plan and lied, not disclosing anything. Banks said he didn’t tell the truth because he wanted to know what “the team” of fellow fifth-grade teachers was doing in the interviews.

Later on, Banks said, he received a phone call one night from fellow fifth-grade teacher Veronica Jordan.

“She said, ‘You’d better get a lawyer. They know everything,’” Banks testified. “She had told them.”

Banks said he soon met with a GBI agent again and apologized for not being forthcoming during their first interview. On Dec. 13, 2010, he signed an immunity agreement provided by special investigator Mike Bowers and agreed to cooperate fully with the governor’s investigation.

9:30 a.m.

The Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial continued Wednesday without former Gideons Elementary School principal Armstead Salters on the witness stand.

Salters surprised the courtroom Tuesday when he backed off many key points of his plea agreement, which he swore to be the truth when he pleaded guilty last December. The 74-year-old former educator acknowledged he knew he was placing himself in jeopardy of a prison sentence for signing off the terms of that agreement.

Salters was supposed to return Wednesday for more examination by attorneys but he was a no-show. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter told prosecutors to find Salters or “the police will go get him.”

Lead prosecutor Fani Willis said prosecutors would be filing a motion against Salters. She did not specify what the motion would seek, but prosecutors are expected to ask Baxter to revoke Salters’ probation and allow him to be sentenced again.

Baxter said he would “toll” Salters’ probation at this point, meaning Salters will no longer be on probation until the matter is taken up at the end of the test-cheating trial.

“We’ll just see what happens at the end of the case and then we’ll deal with that,” Baxter said.

When he pleaded guilty in December, Salters was sentenced to two years on probation and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service and return $2,000 in bonus money he received.

Without Salters in court, former Gideons Elementary School teacher Oliver Banks became the state’s first witness of the day. He testified how teachers changed students’ scores on state-mandated standardized tests.

On Tuesday, Salters testified that when he entered into his plea agreement in December, his health was deteriorating because a racketeering indictment was weighing on him. “I did what was in the best interest of myself, but maybe I did it the wrong way,” he said. “I made a mistake in signing off on some of those things.”

When Salters pleaded guilty last December, he admitted to orchestrating test-cheating at Gideons and said he did so because he felt excessive and extreme pressure placed on him by the administration, such as from his supervisor, Michael Pitts, one of the 12 defendants on trial. Former Superintendent Beverly Hall also applied pressure by setting unobtainable targets on scores on state-mandated standardized tests, the agreement said.

But Salters gave an about-face on Tuesday.

“Mr. Pitts nor Dr. Hall ever encouraged me to cheat,” Salters testified Tuesday. “ … I may have to go to prison for it, but they never placed pressure on me to cheat under any circumstance.”

Testimony ended with Salters on the witness stand, questioned for the second time by clearly frustrated Fulton County prosecutor Clint Rucker. It was unclear when court adjourned whether prosecutors would continue to question Salters on Wednesday.

Former Gideons testing coordinator Sheridan Rogers is also expected to testify.

Rogers pleaded guilty in December to an obstruction charge. In her plea agreement, Rogers said she followed orders from Salters to give Gideons’ teachers access to the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and their answer sheets after students had turned them in. This allowed teachers to correct wrong answers, she said.

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