MEDIA WATCH: You won't see this kind of reporting in Chicago... Atlanta Journal Constitution exposes how business leaders in Atlanta covered up test cheating scandal, to protect 'The Atlanta Brand'
As the dimensions of the test cheating scandal in Atlanta unfold, the newspaper whose investigative reporting forced the state to create the investigation that led to the shocking 800-page expose by a government investigation into the culture of fear and corruption under former Atlanta Schools Supt. Beverly Hall continues to show how for a decade Hall was able to oversee the program that led to increased test scores, a claim that Atlanta was a "miracle" of corporate school reform, and national fame (and a $400,000 per year pay package) for Hall.
As the following article, published on July 17, 2011, reports, Atlanta's "business community" was the main enabler that kept Hall's test score Ponzi Scheme in power and thwarted much of the investigative work that blew the whistle on Hall.
Major execs invested in Hall, By Alan Judd The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, July 17, 2011
In February 2010, some of Atlantaâ€™s top business leaders realized they had a problem.
For a decade, they had aligned themselves with Beverly Hall, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. They willingly accepted Hallâ€™s story line of rebirth in an urban school system. They promoted and sometimes exaggerated Hallâ€™s achievements â€” for her benefit and for their own.
State officials, though, were suggesting gains by Atlanta schools resulted from widespread cheating. Suddenly, the deal between Hall and the business community took on Faustian overtones.
The way business leaders responded underscores their complicity in creating the faÃ§ade of success that hid a decade of alleged wrongdoing, an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows. Their reaction also hints at the role business executives might take in rebuilding the school districtâ€™s reputation amid Hallâ€™s departure and a still-unfolding cheating scandal.
The cityâ€™s chamber of commerce and another business group took control of the districtâ€™s investigation last year into irregularities on state-mandated tests. Executives at the Metro Atlanta Chamber set the parameters of the inquiry and largely selected the people who ran it. Later, they suggested ways to â€œfinesseâ€ the findings past the governor.
Business leaders published opinion pieces and letters to the editor defending Hall before cheating inquiries were complete; calls for the superintendent to resign, they said, could undermine the districtâ€™s progress. And just as they had lobbied almost a decade earlier to give the superintendent more autonomy from the Board of Education, this year they sought new power for the governor to remove recalcitrant board members.
A memo drafted by a chamber executive on Feb. 15 last year laid out the hazards that a cheating investigation might unloose: â€œThis issue has serious implications â€” on Dr. Hallâ€™s reputation and career, for the principals and administrators who perhaps let lapses occur in testing procedures, and most importantly for the children who may be missing out on critical remediation,â€ said the memo, obtained recently by the AJC.
But, the document continued: â€œIt also has implications on the business community, many of whom ... are heavy investors, and on the economic development community who touts the superintendent and school boardâ€™s recent awards as best in the nation.â€
Seventeen months later, a state investigation has revealed that many of the school districtâ€™s claims of academic progress were, in fact, based on systemic wrongdoing.
Hall, investigators concluded, â€œdupedâ€ community leaders. â€œShe abused the trust they placed in her. Hall became a subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children. Her image became more important than reality.â€
At the same time, investigators wrote, â€œthe possibility of a negative reflection on the Atlanta â€˜brandâ€™ caused some to protect Dr. Hall and attack the messengers. ... Somewhere in this process, the truth got lost, and so did the children.â€
Few in the business community would speak publicly last week about the investigation, the degree of blame that corporate leaders deserve or even their continued support for the school district. As one executive put it, business leaders are â€œhunkered down until this stampede runs its course.â€
That executive, too, would speak only on condition of anonymity.
The business communityâ€™s top spokesman, Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, declined to be interviewed. In a statement released Friday, he said: â€œI am glad the facts are on the table, and I appreciate the hard work of the investigators.â€
The â€œright leadership teamâ€ is in place, Williams said, and business leaders will help â€œin any way we can.â€
He did not elaborate.
Williams is one of many business leaders who dialed down their public expressions of support for the school district, and for Hall, when the scale of the cheating became indisputable.
Even some of Hallâ€™s most vocal critics, however, see this backtracking as disingenuous.
â€œFor them to say, â€˜Things were out of control,â€™ it gives me the feeling they are throwing Beverly Hall and others under the bus,â€ said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. â€œThey were there at the invention of this tragedy.â€
â€˜A good investmentâ€™
She was the belle of the business community. Fluent in the language of corporate America, she easily wooed Atlantaâ€™s executives and their money.
Beverly Hall made a strong impression when she arrived in Atlanta in 1999. She spoke about â€œdata-drivenâ€ school reform and â€œdashboardsâ€ with multiple metrics to track progress by students and teachers alike. Such talk won over executives accustomed to incessantly following sales figures and stock prices, profits and losses.
At Hallâ€™s request, the chamber and other business groups created the Atlanta Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the district. The chamber also reactivated a group that backed candidates for the school board.
Hallâ€™s efforts to engage business leaders succeeded. The education fund and the district collected millions of dollars in grants and donations, most notably $22 million for science education from the General Electric Foundation.
GEâ€™s vice chairman, John Rice, who was based in Atlanta, became one of Hallâ€™s closest confidants. Her emails, obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act, show she frequently consulted Rice on matters large and small. He offered advice on managing stress, for instance, urging her to not read critical editorials.
Volunteering as chairman of the education fund, Rice worked with Hall to solicit corporate gifts. In April 2009, for instance, they appeared together at what the education fund billed as a â€œcultivation eventâ€ for potential donors.
â€œWe at GE believe we have made a good investment,â€ Rice said, according to remarks that employees of the education fund prepared for the event. â€œI am committed to making sure other investors feel the same.â€
As such relationships matured, Hall could count on her friends in business to rush to her defense. In May 2006, an AJC editorial and a column criticized Hallâ€™s bonuses â€” $68,300 the previous year â€” in light of lingering academic deficiencies. Days later, the chief executive of Georgia Power Co. and the president of the UPS Foundation responded with an opinion article asserting that, under Hall, Atlanta was engaged in the most comprehensive school reform in the United States and that the superintendentâ€™s â€œnational honorsâ€ had attracted many philanthropic investors.
â€œSchool systems, like businesses, must also look at the return on their investment,â€ wrote Georgia Powerâ€™s Mike Garrett and UPSâ€™ Evern Cooper Epps. â€œAny honest dialogue about salaries must be based on that principle.â€
Hallâ€™s corporate friends defended her again in 2008 and 2009, when articles in the AJC challenged the validity of the districtâ€™s gains on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. Then, in February 2010, when a state analysis showed a suspicious number of wrong-to-right erasures in 58 Atlanta schools, the business community tried to contain the looming crisis.
Two weeks after the state released its erasure analysis, Williams, the chamber president, wrote a memo detailing how an independent investigation into alleged cheating would play out. The memo even listed most of the members who would be appointed to a panel that came to be known as the Blue Ribbon Commission.
And, the districtâ€™s critics say, Williams showed his hand in describing the inquiryâ€™s aim: â€œWe will let the facts from this investigation guide us in our support of Dr. Hall and the next steps the Atlanta Public Schools system needs to take.â€
The commissionâ€™s 15 members consisted mostly of business executives or others who had done business with the school district or who had other civic or social ties to the district or to Hall.
Among them: GEâ€™s John Rice.
The commissionâ€™s final report last summer concluded that major testing irregularities were limited to 12 schools. A few days after the reportâ€™s release, Rice and James Bostic, a retired Georgia-Pacific executive and former state school board member, met with Hall and urged her to immediately fire the principals of those 12 schools, according to a report last week in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Hall reportedly declined.
At the same time, questions about the commissionâ€™s independence and the thoroughness of its inquiry were casting doubts on its findings. So the chamber and the education fund convened a â€œcommunications teamâ€ to combat the negative reviews.
On Aug. 5, Renay Blumenthal, a senior vice president at the chamber who had worked with the Blue Ribbon Commission, sent the team an email that laid out a plan to silence skeptics, including then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and school board members who wanted a deeper investigation.
The team, Blumenthal wrote, should focus first on getting Perdue and the Governorâ€™s Office of Student Achievement to â€œunderstand and acceptâ€ the commissionâ€™s report.
â€œThe media and the rogue board members are annoying and distracting at best,â€ she wrote, â€œbut what will make us dead in the water is if GOSA and the Gov discredit and/or not accept the report.â€
If Perdueâ€™s office accepted the report, she said, â€œyouâ€™ve pulled the stinger out of whatever the media and board members could say next.â€
Further, Blumenthal wrote, officials needed to provide a â€œgraceful exit strategyâ€ for Perdue and Hall, suggesting further inquiries be left to the Professional Standards Commission, the stateâ€™s teacher licensing agency.
â€œLet the Gov say the BRC provided a terrific road map that he is referring immediately to the PSC,â€ Blumenthal wrote. â€œAnd then let Hall say she agrees and welcomes the PSCâ€™s involvement and expertise.â€
Finally, she suggested appealing to Perdueâ€™s chief of staff and executive counsel.
â€œThe Gov trusts and listens to them,â€ Blumenthal wrote, â€œand I think we could finesse this thru them.â€
Blumenthal did not respond to a request for an interview last week.
Two weeks after Blumenthal sent the email, Perdue announced that he was dissatisfied with the Blue Ribbon Commissionâ€™s work and appointed the special investigators who recently delivered a scathing report to his successor.
The investigators concluded that cheating was widespread and systemic; that more than 170 educators participated; that district officials lied and destroyed and altered government documents to cover up cheating; and that Hall knew or should have known that the achievements that brought her national acclaim resulted from academic fraud.
On March 7, 2010, the Blue Ribbon Commissionâ€™s chairman, Gary Price, managing partner in Atlanta of the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said business leaders supported Hall because â€œreforming Atlanta Public Schools is good for business.â€
Three months later, as the commission prepared its report, Price said: â€œThere has been no evidence that there has been any systemwide, systemic effort to cheat or do anything like that on last yearâ€™s tests.â€
When Price spoke with state investigators, however, he offered a harsher assessment. The school districtâ€™s culture, he said, according to the investigatorsâ€™ report, was â€œall about perform, perform, perform. ... They were not in balance.â€
Price is hardly the only corporate executive who has distanced himself from Hall.
Even John Rice has retreated. Last November, he wrote an article for the AJC dismissing calls for Hallâ€™s resignation. â€œBeverly Hallâ€™s clear record of achievement shows the gains that can be made with consistent and capable leadership,â€ he wrote. â€œShe has brought stability, high academic standards, and has created a community of believers in APS.â€
Months later, he told state investigators the district â€œlost its balance between performance and ethics.â€
Neither Price nor Rice responded to interview requests.
Now Hall is gone, interim Superintendent Erroll Davis is firing employees accused of cheating, and prosecutors are considering criminal charges. Critics of the district â€” and of the chamber â€” say business leaders who assisted Hall also deserve scrutiny.
â€œThis is crying out for a separate investigation,â€ said John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. â€œThey should be held as accountable as the school authorities.â€
But state Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said business people initially supported Hall because when she came to Atlanta, the district was â€œspiraling downward.â€ As has happened in other cities, partnerships emerged that allowed businesses to provide expertise to educators.
â€œTheir intent and heart have been in the right place,â€ Lindsey said. â€œThey have recognized for more than a decade that for us to have the economic development we need, we have to have a viable school system.â€
The mistake, he said, was suspending disbelief in the face of unbelievable gains.
â€œWe were so enamored with the perception,â€ he said, â€œthat we didnâ€™t see the reality.â€
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