Ex-educator not guilty in cheating scandal trial

The first trial connected to Atlanta’s school cheating scandal has ended with a not-guilty verdict.

The verdict clearing former educator Tamara Cotman of wrongdoing was announced about 11 a.m. Friday. Cotman, a former area director for Atlanta Public Schools, had been accused of trying to influence a witness.

“I feel vindicated,” Cotman said outside court. “I’m very much grateful to those who have been very supportive.”

Testimony began Aug. 23 in Cotman’s trial in Fulton County Superior Court. She was the first of about three dozen former administrators and teachers to stand trial after her attorney requested a speedy trial on a single count of influencing a witness.

Juror Ben Emerson was quoted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying that prosecutors had presented a strong case about test cheating but that was not what Cotman was on trial for.

“I wouldn’t say there was too much evidence, but there was a lack of evidence for the charge that was brought on this person,” he said.

Cotman is among 35 former administrators and teachers, including her former boss, Superintendent Beverly Hall, to face criminal charges involving allegations of tampering with standardized test results. The others have yet to be tried.

“We are disappointed with the verdict,” said Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard. “This is just one part of what we always thought would be a very long battle and what we understand is a very complicated case.”

The charges stem from a 2011 state investigation, which concluded that cheating occurred at 44 Atlanta schools so educators could avoid losing their jobs and earn bonuses.

In Cotman’s trial, a witness for the prosecution testified that Cotman rebuffed a teacher who reported that she had been given standardized test answer sheets, and the teacher was out of a job soon afterward.

Mary Gordon, who taught at Turner Middle School, said Cotman told her “they just do that at Turner” when asked about the answer sheets. Then Gordon’s principal put her on an improvement plan, and Gordon quit out of frustration, ending a 29-year career.

Gordon testified for the prosecution to back up charges alleging Cotman harassed and demoted a principal who she believed reported to the school board that Cotman gave instructions for school employees to tell cheating scandal investigators to “go to hell.”

Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, had argued his client never witnessed cheating and didn’t try to block investigators.