By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 15, 2011
After the release July 5 of the state investigation report on cheating in Atlanta Public Schools, key business and civic leaders are wondering what’s next.
Will the response to the cheating scandal be one of renewed commitment? Or has there been irreparable damage done between the Atlanta Public Schools and the community at large?
On July 7, interim APS Superintendent Erroll Davis held a breakfast meeting with top donors.
“Everybody feels angry,” said Davis, who retired as chancellor of the Georgia Board of Regents on June 30. “I wanted to give them assurances that there were excellent programs in place that merited their support.”
At the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s lunch meeting July 11, state investigators Mike Bowers and Bob Wilson urged the business community to stay involved.
“The business community cannot give up,” Wilson said. “Just because something has gone wrong, it doesn’t mean that the business community should back up and get out of it. Our state needs you to continue to support the public education system.”
At Rotary, Davis told the community leaders: “We are going to be better because of this, but we will need your help.”
Retired BellSouth Corp. executive Phil Jacobs, a leading civic player in education, said he is optimistic that top donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will continue to support APS. But Jacobs added that the business and donor community might require more accountability in the future.
One indicator of the level of business community support is the Atlanta Education Fund, which was started in 2007 as a way to channel financial and corporate support into Atlanta’s public education system.
In the past year, the AEF suspended its three-year, $19 million fundraising drive (after raising $14 million) because of the cloud surrounding the cheating scandal, APS’ board governance, placing the accreditation of the school system on probation and a transition in leadership from former Superintendent Beverly Hall to Davis; and from board chairman Khaatim S. El to Brenda Muhammad.
“It has been like a tsunami,” said Curley Dossman, president of the Georgia-Pacific Foundation, who is taking a major role in leading the Atlanta Education Fund following the recent retirement of Executive Director Bill McCargo. “AEF’s decision to scale down was a conscious, well-thought-out decision. The role changed with the current environment and circumstances, which required a different kind of engagement.”
Katie Michaels McDowell, executive director of the Michaels Family Charitable Foundation and co-founder of the Atlanta Families’ Award for Excellence in Education, said she has confidence in Davis and remains committed to APS and its teachers.
“Erroll Davis has high integrity and ethical standards,” said McDowell, who attended the breakfast. “It was very reassuring to hear directly from him. We think he’s the right man for the job, and we can’t wait to work with him.”
But one civic leader who asked not to be identified, expressed concern that there would not be the level of private support that Hall received in her tenure. “Folks feel burned,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who are going to be gun-shy about investing in the system.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that despite what happened, “The business community is going to be essential to reforming the process.”
Clearly some members of the business community are not walking away. Georgia Power Co. President and CEO Paul Bowers was the one who first approached Davis, someone he has known for 20 years, about whether he would be open to serving as interim APS superintendent.
Gary Price, Atlanta managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, who chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission that did the first investigation, has every reason to feel burned by his involvement. But he has no regrets.
“This is about supporting our public schools,” Price said. “It’s not about supporting a person. It’s about supporting the kids. I would do it again.”