By John Schaffner
The leadership crisis in the Atlanta Public Schools appears near a resolution, following a court-negotiated re-election of top positions on the Board of Education and the coming departure of the school system’s superintendent.
Meanwhile, the cheating scandal involving 58 Atlanta elementary and middle schools and test scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests is headed for a full-blown criminal investigation.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard on Nov. 30 appointed former State Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb District Attorney Bob Wilson as special assistant district attorneys and prosecutors in the DA’s office.
At a press conference, Howard said that Bowers and Wilson, who were appointed in August by Gov. Sonny Perdue to be special investigators, have “presented my office with clear-cut, direct, eye-witnessed evidence” that student tests improperly were altered by Atlanta Public School employees,
“It is now our duty to determine the extent of this wrongdoing and decide in which cases criminal prosecution may be appropriate,” Howard added. “If it was just one person, I don’t think we’d be doing this today.”
Howard also said he may impanel a special investigative grand jury to help with the probe. This would also allow prosecutors to seek formal charges.
Meanwhile, a session with a Superior Court Judge John Goger and the members of the Atlanta School Board on Nov. 23 led to the re-election of the board’s chairman Khaatim Sheerer El and a new vice chairwoman Cicely Harsch-Kinnane who came from a four-member minority block on the board.
The events cap activity and politicking that has disrupted the board for months.
Beverly Hall, superintendent of schools, announced Nov. 20 she would not seek a new contract for the school’s top administrative position after the current school year June 30.
APS has said it would fully cooperate with all state investigators, including the GBI. Hall has said in the past that she welcomes the investigation.
J. Tom Morgan, former district attorney for DeKalb County and outside counsel for APS on the CRCT investigation issued a statement the afternoon of Nov. 30 stating:
“Atlanta Public Schools will cooperate fully and completely with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, just as the school system has done with the state investigation,” Morgan’s statement said.
“Hall has repeatedly demanded that every employee cooperate with investigators or face termination. If any employees violated criminal laws during the course of their employment with the Atlanta Public Schools, they should be prosecuted. Hall believes strongly that such prosecutions are in the interest of the community at large, and especially in the interest of school children who may have been harmed by these actions.
“If Atlanta Public Schools has reasonable evidence that someone has violated an ethical standard required of all our educators, the superintendent will immediately move to terminate that individual’s contract, without waiting for criminal prosecution.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, quoting an unnamed source, said “numerous” school district employees had confessed to knowledge of the cheating.
Meanwhile, the board has had its own internal struggles. In September, the five-member majority elected a new chair and vice chair after a series of board policy changes.
The four-member minority on the board countered by filing a lawsuit challenging the legality of the election.
The resolution of the lawsuit ended in a four-hour session behind closed doors with Goger Nov. 23.
All members of the school board agreed that the current chairman, El, and vice chair Yolanda Johnson would resign and that replacements would be elected later that day based on a compromise: one from the five-member board majority and one from the four-member minority on the board that brought the lawsuit.
El was re-elected as chair. Members then nominated both Harsch-Kinnane and Reuben McDaniel—two of the board’s four–member minority—to be vice chair. The board eventually appointed Harsch-Kinnane by a 5-3 vote.
The board minority had filed the lawsuit Oct. 28 seeking to overturn the actions of the majority that resulted in unseating board chair LaChandra Butler Burks and vice chair Harsch-Kinnane and replacing them with El as chair and Johnson as vice chair
The stated catalyst for the board split was the way the superintendent and some board members were handling the test score cheating scandal and the lack of transparency associated with that.
School board members Nancy Meister, Brenda Muhammad and Courtney English were the three other members, along with El and Johnson, voted as the majority block.
In addition to Burks and Harsch-Kinnane, the minority included McDaniel and Emmett Johnson.
The question of the legitimacy of the way the board leadership was changed had raised questions about the board’s ability to effectively run the school system.