A Burgess-Peterson Elementary School student listens to an audio book as she reads along. In the wake of the cheating scandal, the Atlanta Public Schools system is expanding programs, such as this one at Burgess-Peterson, to help students who need extra assistance to keep up. The potential cost of the expanded remediation program is $6.4 million.
Photo: Brant Sanderlin bsanderlin@ajc.com
Photo: Brant Sanderlin bsanderlin@ajc.com

The high cost of test cheating

Millions already spent, millions more to come

Millions already spent, millions more to come

Thousands of dollars to media consultants. Hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers. Millions of dollars to teachers and administrators who do no work and who, in fact, are suspected of doing harm. Taxpayers have already paid about $6 million for the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, and they’ll likely pay a lot more.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the costs associated with the scandal concludes that the public will wind up paying at least $3 million more to root out and rectify what investigators described as a culture of corruption at APS.

Atlanta taxpayers aren’t the only ones paying, either. The state of Georgia spent nearly $3 million investigating suspicions of cheating in the administration of the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The probe produced a searing report that uncovered widespread cheating at dozens of Atlanta schools.

“Is this how expensive it is these days to tell people not to cheat?” said James W. Guthrie, director of education policy studies at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University. “Why don’t they fine the adults who were involved and make them pay for this? I think the public is being cheated.”

The full public cost of the alleged cheating may never be known, but the AJC assembled a conservative tally based on interviews and reviews of documents obtained under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Taxpayers have paid about $2.4 million to teachers and administrators idled by the allegations. They’ve paid $698,000 to lawyers hired by the school system. They’ve also paid for things that are less clearly tied to the cheating scandal, such as $738,000 to tutor kids who may have been victims of test cheating. The school system is expanding its student remediation program, at a potential cost of $6.4 million. Officials say the program is aimed at all children who are lagging behind in class, and not just victims of cheating. And APS will be paying the teachers and lawyers more.

The expenditure comes as tax revenue for education is being squeezed. The Atlanta school system is staring at a $65 million budget shortfall next year. Superintendent Erroll Davis said recently he is seeking private donations to cover some remediation costs.

“We’re going to have to pay for justice to be done,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers and the Georgia Federation of Teachers. “We’re just going to have to bite the bullet here, pay the cost and do whatever we can to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.”

The cost of firing, hiring

The biggest cost for most employers is their employees. And in Atlanta, the biggest clear expense of the alleged cheating so far is the salaries of idled educators.

In July, after the state released its investigation implicating 178 Atlanta educators, Davis, the new superintendent, said he didn’t want any of them returning to work. He put them on paid leave, pending the outcome of termination proceedings. Now that process is on hold until the district attorney concludes a criminal investigation.

Early on, school officials said the idled workers were costing $1 million a month, but about 50 have since quit. The cost is more like $600,000 to $700,000 a month now, said district spokesman Keith Bromery. By the end of November, nonworking educators will have cost Atlanta taxpayers at least $2.4 million. Since their status could linger in limbo at least into January — and perhaps beyond — that cost could keep rising.

A connected but debatable cost: replacing the teachers.

Turnover is expensive for employers, and school systems are no exception. It takes administrative time and money to recruit, vet, process and train new hires. Atlanta school officials could not say how much it will cost to replace the accused employees, and Davis said he doesn’t know how much turnover typically costs his school system.

But experts say each teacher in an urban school district such as Atlanta can cost between $15,000 to $20,000 to replace. That’s the cost of employing a human resources department to recruit, background and process new hires, and to pay for training, including the time teachers need to get it.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which certifies teachers, estimated in 2006 that replacing a teacher costs as much as $20,000. That number was based on an informal survey of human resources officials, said Anne Marie Fenton, the commission’s director of educator preparation.

The next year, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, using actual financial data from school districts, found the cost to replace each teacher in Milwaukee was $15,325. In Chicago, it was $17,872.

“The bottom line is teacher turnover is expensive,” said Tom Carroll, the group’s president. “There’s a lot that goes into hiring a person.”

The next biggest cost will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever hired a lawyer.

10 law firms

Ten of the 30 law firms employed by the Atlanta school system during the last fiscal year worked on the cheating case.

They billed about $700,000, including $127,000 to represent then-Superintendent Beverly Hall. Her contract required the school system to pay her legal fees. The fees were invoiced through Jones Day, a giant international law firm that handled everything from reading news articles to prepping Hall for an interview with state investigators.

In October 2010, one firm, billing at $135 an hour, charged $1,147 to edit a production flow chart, index files and review an email.

A month later, another firm charged $750 to write a press release about the appointment of special prosecutors.

Phone calls could cost more than $4 a minute.

On Oct. 25, 2010, one firm made a 45-minute call about a school system employee. The cost: $187.50.

The school system has budgeted another $1 million for legal work on the test-cheating case for this fiscal year. Teachers who refuse to quit will have to be fired through a tribunal process. The average price for recent tribunals was more than $9,000 each.

“Some things, you’ve just got to do,” said Atlanta school board Chairwoman Brenda Muhammad. “We don’t have options. These folks have rights.”

The state investigation itself also cost millions. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue hired two lawyers to lead it — former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson. A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal said they billed $2.2 million. Most of that money paid for the Atlanta investigation; some went toward a similar inquiry in Dougherty County.

The money paid for about a dozen lawyers who worked as part-time investigators on the case for about a year. They all billed at $160 an hour, Bowers said, far below his normal rate of $630 an hour.

“Did we do a good job on the investigation? Hell yes, we got at the truth,” he said. “How much is the truth worth? Hell, I don’t know.”

Bowers said the investigation was inexpensive given “the scope and depth of the corruption.” His team, armed with subpoena power, scoured documents and conducted interviews. They encountered some “fine” people. They also came across “scoundrels” who “cheated youngsters out of the opportunity to get a decent education,” Bowers said. “As a taxpayer, a citizen and a grandfather, I resented that.”

The investigation included the largest contingent of Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents on such a long assignment since the 1996 Olympics bombing, said agency spokesman John Bankhead.

Spin-control costs

With news of the cheating making international headlines, officials tried to control public perceptions.

The school system has paid three public relations firms to work the scandal. They billed more than $15,000 for that work; when they were spinning test-related news, they cost taxpayers more than $2 a minute.

In July 2010, consultant Jeff Dickerson billed the school system for six hours, at $125 an hour, reviewing “media strategy” about the tests. His $750 bill that day covered telephone conferences and business and community “outreach.” Five days later, he billed $500 for four hours of phone conferences on the same topic.

Another firm, Manning, Selvage & Lee, clocked more than 30 hours on the topic, billing at $150 an hour. The work included “messaging” in connection with an open records request by the AJC ($450), “feedback” on an article about the tests ($300) and discussion of an AJC article on confidence in then-Superintendent Hall ($375).

The human cost

After the investigation was under way but before the results were in, the Atlanta school system tried to address the effect that test-tampering could have had on students. The system hired contractors to help teachers provide remedial tutoring to any student who needed it.

Invoices for math tutoring show more than $700,000 in billing for remedial work last year.

Officials have since announced an expansion of the program, which is projected to cost $6.4 million, according to APS spokesman Bromery.

Davis, the superintendent, said it costs so much because “it was impossible to isolate” the victims of test-tampering.

In a series of emails, he explained the rising cost of tutoring.

“I announced in July that we would remediate the children impacted by the scandal,” he wrote. “However we simply cannot identify those kids two years later. So, we have decided to remediate all who need help. ... This group should be far larger than just those who were impacted.

“Some teachers may have completely remediated the impacts. Some may not have,” he said.

He said 3,000 students are playing catchup in reading, and 5,500 in math.

Muhammad, the school board chair, said the rising cost of remediation is justified by the alleged altering of students’ test scores. “Those kids have to have remediation,” she said.

“We owe it to them. No doubt about it. ... I know it is a lot of money. This whole tragedy is costing a lot of money.”

The damage may extend even to students whose test scores were not altered. Many parents have spoken of the shame their children felt because their schools, principals and teachers were accused of cheating.

“That was a rough year for them,” said Sherida Ragland, whose daughter attended West Manor Elementary, where cheating was alleged. “I feel like they have been affected to the point that they’re questioning themselves.”

Ragland, whose daughter won the districtwide spelling bee last year, said she does not believe cheating occurred at the South Atlanta school. Yet she said she understood the need for an investigation.

“It’s a colossal waste of resources,” she said. “It was just really unfortunate.”

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