Judge allows ‘prior bad acts’ testimony in APS case

His students’ standardized test scores didn’t make any sense, Michael Milstead, the former principal at Harper Archer Middle School, testified Friday.

Many of them had exceeded expectations on tests they took in elementary school. But after advancing to middle school, these same students could not read or do basic math.

Milstead voiced his concerns about the discrepancies during a July 2008 meeting with fellow principals. It wasn’t long, he testified, before he was reprimanded about that by his boss, Tamara Cotman, then a regional executive director in the Atlanta Public Schools system who is now a defendant facing an Aug. 19 criminal trial.

Cotman told Milstead she wished she had never renewed his contract and suggested he start exploring other employment options, he testified. Milstead, now a high school principal in Texas, said he resigned before being terminated at APS.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ruled that Milstead and six others can testify about alleged “prior bad acts” committed by Cotman. These acts are not alleged crimes, but they are being used by prosecutors to try and show how Cotman retaliated against those who voiced complaints about test-cheating and other matters. Baxter reserved ruling as to whether two other potential witnesses can testify.

When asking Baxter to allow the testimony, Deputy Assistant District Attorney Christopher Quinn said Cotman used a management style of fear and intimidation.

To those who voiced complaints, Quinn said, “She made their life a living hell. … It was keep your mouth shut or else.”

Cotman is scheduled to be the first defendant to stand trial in the APS test-cheating scandal. She is also still scheduled to be tried separately next May with 34 other former APS officials who are accused in a sweeping racketeering conspiracy.

In the upcoming trial, Cotman faces a single charge of influencing a witness. She is accused of telling 12 principals in December 2010 to write a “go to hell” memo to GBI agents who were investigating test cheating at those principals’ schools. After this meeting, an APS employee wrote the school board about Cotman’s alleged directive.

In the ensuing months, Cotman, believing then-Scott Elementary principal Jimmye Hawkins had written the letter, began harassing Hawkins, prosecutors allege. On Feb. 11, 2011, Cotman called Hawkins into her office and told her to pack up things and leave her school by the end of the day.

At that point, Hawkins was cooperating with the GBI and was wearing a hidden recording device during that meeting, Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, said during Friday’s hearing.

Davis has said Cotman is innocent and will be acquitted. Davis opposed the motion by prosecutors to allow the “prior bad acts” testimony, calling the witnesses “disgruntled former employees.

Tonette Hunter, once a Scott Elementary paraprofessional who also will be allowed to testify, said Friday she had been told by her principal to let students know when they got an answer wrong while taking a standardized test. “Just point to it,” the principal instructed, Hunter testified.

Instead, Hunter said, she called Cotman about it and expected her to back her up. But when Cotman called her into her office, Hunter testified, she was surprised to see her principal in the room as well. Cotman said, “I needed to shut up and stay out of things that weren’t my concern,” Hunter testified. She said she was terminated from her job a month later.

Monica Hooker, a former reading specialist at Best Academy, will be allowed to testify that she also voiced concern about students who had scored well in reading on elementary school standardized tests. She recalled one student who had exceeded expectations during his test but was reading on a first-grade level in middle school.

Hooker broke down when describing the long hours she worked to help her students and the gains they had made. She testified that she was eventually transferred to another school and later resigned.

At the outset of Friday’s hearing, Baxter asked Davis if he had discussed with Cotman “the consequence of this case if things don’t go right.”

After Davis said he had, prosecutors said that Cotman, if convicted, faces a sentence of up to five years in prison.

At the end of the hearing, after hearing all the damaging testimony, Baxter said that while sitting on the bench he sometimes thinks of Las Vegas because it’s the place where people go to gamble.

“Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose,” Baxter said. “There needs to be some soul searching.”