Former Principal talks about Go to Hell meeting

Secret wire recording played in Atlanta cheating trial

Fearing retaliation for cooperating with Atlanta school cheating investigations, former Principal Jimmye Hawkins wore a wire when her boss took away her job.

But the boss, area schools director Tamara Cotman, denied on the secret recording that Hawkins was being demoted because she had talked about a meeting in which Cotman allegedly encouraged principals to tell GBI agents to “go to hell.”

Instead, Cotman told the first-year principal at Scott Elementary School in northwest Atlanta that she was being transferred to a lower-paying job because she hadn’t improved teaching quality enough to show significant academic improvement on upcoming standardized tests.

Hawkins took the stand Wednesday as the key witness against Cotman, the first defendant to go on trial in the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating case. In all, 35 former teachers and administrators face criminal charges.

Cotman is accused of influencing a witness by harassing and demoting Hawkins as investigators sought to prove in 2011 that widespread cheating had occurred on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

When Cotman moved Hawkins to a new job as an instructional coach in a different school on Feb. 11, 2011, Hawkins asked whether the action had to do with an anonymous letter notifying the school board of the “go to hell” meeting.

Cotman, speaking on the scratchy recording played in court Wednesday, told Hawkins the letter wasn’t the reason she was being transferred.

“We’re not going to have that conversation because I don’t know anything that you’re talking about,” Cotman said on the recording. “The bottom line is I only have a little bit of time to make sure that school has better results this year than last year.”

Hawkins testified that Cotman was trying to raise results on 2011 standardized tests in an effort to prove investigators wrong about cheating. If students’ scores improved enough in 2011, it would indicate that incredible results from two years before were due to their academic gains rather than from cheating.

The investigation concluded in July 2011 that 185 Atlanta teachers and administrators changed test scores.

“I just felt that the truth needed to come out,” Hawkins said during six hours of sometimes tearful testimony. “Ms. Cotman did not care for the GBI, and there was just this undertone that you’d better not cooperate.”

When Hawkins became principal in 2010, Scott Elementary had already been flagged as a school with a high number of suspicious test scores.

On Nov. 17, 2010, Cotman talked to 10 principals about GBI agents who would be visiting schools to ask about cheating , Hawkins said. Cotman brought a notepad with “go to hell” printed on the top of each page, Hawkins said, and handed sheets from the notepad to the principals.

“She said I want you to write a ‘go to hell’ memo to the GBI,” Hawkins said. “How could I have taught children for 29 and a half years and tell them they have to stand up for what they believe in, and then tell the GBI to go to hell? … How could I sleep at night? I couldn’t do it.”

While some principals wrote the names of investigators on their “go to hell” memos, Hawkins said she wrote “Sarah Palin” because she didn’t think the GBI had acted unprofessionally in its investigation.

Later, former North Atlanta High School Principal Mark MyGrant sent an anonymous letter about the meeting to then-Superintendent Beverly Hall, her chief of staff and members of the school board. He testified Tuesday that he heard about the meeting after talking with Hawkins and two other principals.

Atlanta Public Schools hired an outside law firm to ask questions about the meeting. When an investigator questioned Hawkins about the anonymous letter, she worried that her job might be in danger.

Those fears appeared to be confirmed when Cotman called Hawkins to her office, even though the school system’s attorney, Veleter Mazyck, promised she wouldn’t be retaliated against.

Hawkins called the state cheating investigators, who supplied a wire hidden in her pocketbook to record the conversation.

Cotman transferred Hawkins to Jackson Elementary that Friday.

The next day, Hawkins said Mazyck told her she had been restored to her position as principal at Scott Elementary. Cotman was transferred out of her job as a regional director by the following Monday.

Hawkins served as interim principal at Scott through last school year, receiving positive evaluations, before being transferred. She’s now an assistant principal at E. Rivers Elementary in Buckhead.

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