Opinion: Atlanta school chief shouldn’t wait until June to leave

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: The sooner an interim leader can begin, the better to burnish Atlanta Public Schools’ image and ensure students are put first amid a test-score scandal

Late Friday, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall notified school board members that she would leave after her contract ends June 30. We are encouraged by that first necessary step.

Hall was notifying board members at about the time this Editorial Board was putting finishing touches on an early version of this editorial. In it, we called for Hall to either resign immediately, or be terminated. The announcement that she won’t be around for the start of the next school year does not change our position. Now is the time for a new top interim leader at APS, not next school year. Hall is so damaged by this process she cannot lead the district.

That we’re at this point is truly sad. By most accounts, Hall, in her 11 years as superintendent, has made much-needed changes; brought in grants and other outside money to the schools; and moved some test scores forward. In what now seems like the distant past, Hall’s tough, by-the-numbers approach forced improvement in teaching quality that has benefited students.

But when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered signs of cheating nearly two years ago, Hall and the district turned a blind eye. Her response to allegations of cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test has done nothing but tarnish her legacy and damage the public’s trust in an already fragile school district.

This month, the AJC reported that Hall saw a report in May validating the AJC’s reporting on questionable test score increases. The report was kept from the public and most of the school board. That suggests the scandal has expanded from inadequately addressed cheating allegations to a cover-up intended to protect image and not children.

In an Aug. 4 interview with WABE after the release of a blue ribbon commission’s report, Hall acknowledged problems and promised that those found guilty would be severely punished. Still on message, though, she added: “I’d say that we still don’t know what was going on. And I think I was hoping that the report would answer that. It did not. So we’re going to go back and figure out what went on. What should we have known? We can’t yet say there was pervasive cheating because the report is very clear that they don’t even want to say that.”

Hall’s reluctance to accept what’s likely the truth led Gov. Sonny Perdue to heed this Editorial Board’s suggestion and take the extraordinary step of appointing two special investigators and, later, to bring in the GBI to do what Hall and Atlanta Public Schools would not do. Federal officials are also reportedly investigating the district for possible fraud related to illicitly raised test scores.

These allegations — and at this point they’re only that — have heaped suspicion on a school district that so many have worked so hard to reform. This could have been avoided if candor had prevailed at Atlanta Public Schools.

It is too early to know for certain just how widespread the problems were, but it is a credible allegation that some district workers cheated, or helped students cheat. That is plain wrong, and tantamount to robbing students of their right to earn a decent education.

We hope teachers and other district employees will be open with the GBI and the truth will emerge. Then we can learn the scope of the cheating. We also need to know if Hall or others fostered a culture where cheating was condoned — or worse. Were administrators involved?

We hope the investigation focuses on any possible cover-ups as well as cheating. We have also asked the attorney general to investigate the possible criminal violation of the Georgia Open Records Act by the school district’s hiding of the report validating the work by the AJC’s Heather Vogell and John Perry.

People need to come clean. But, more importantly, we need to begin the process to restore the Atlanta schools. The current board minority is still fighting with the majority over the replacement of the chairman. This seems like a lot of energy focused in the wrong place. Both factions should work together on finding a new superintendent.

The Atlanta Education Fund, which has been heavily involved in the schools and likely had more information than some school board members at times, needs to re-evaluate its role. It is disturbing that the fund received the report that validated the AJC’s findings, but school board members and the public did not.

And finally, there needs to be a thorough analysis of whether Atlanta Public Schools is better off if the mayor of the city is ultimately responsible for its success. In other cities, this model has worked in pushing reform and accountability.

Atlanta Public Schools’ parents deserve a school district that puts the children first. That requires a new superintendent who can build upon recent years’ accomplishments and restore public trust in the system.

Andre Jackson,for the Editorial Board

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