Atlanta business leaders and APS: What’s next?

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.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

4 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    The APS’s thirst for money never ceases to amaze. They spend over $14,000 per pupil per year from public sources (versus US average of $8700) and yet they are out panhandling for more from private sources. It seems that the more money they have to spend, the poorer job they do educating the children. Their socioeconomic situation is no worse than South DeKalb and Clayton counties, so that’s not the difference.Report

    Reply
  2. Peachy News says:

    If any branch of government or private industry were investigated with the same hyper-focus that was trained on CRCT testing at Atlanta’s public schools, we’d hear about a lot more egregious behavior than what’s alleged at APS. But don’t except to hear about the the crooked deeds happening at the state capitol anytime soon, because while Georgia’s governor and legislators felt justified in laying out a unprecedented stash of state funds for private attorneys to investigate APS, they slashed and burned the budget of the state’s Ethics Commission, responsible for investigating suspect activity of the governor and legislators – right when guess who was getting investigated…. Talk about pots calling the kettle black. You can bet, with billions of dollars of state funds at stake, a lot more than test scores are getting erased under the Gold Dome lately, and the biggest cheaters in Georgia are still getting away with it.Report

    Reply
  3. Peachy News says:

    If any branch of government or private industry were investigated with the same hyper-focus that was trained on CRCT testing at Atlanta’s public schools, we’d hear about a lot more egregious behavior than what’s alleged at APS. But don’t except to hear about the the crooked deeds happening at the state capitol anytime soon, because while Georgia’s governor and legislators felt justified in laying out an unprecedented stash of state funds for private attorneys to investigate APS, they slashed and burned the budget of the state’s Ethics Commission, responsible for investigating suspect activity of the governor and legislators – right when guess who was getting investigated…. Talk about pots calling the kettle black. You can bet, with billions of dollars of state funds at stake, a lot more than test scores are getting erased under the Gold Dome lately, and the biggest cheaters in Georgia are still getting away with it.Report

    Reply
  4. cityzen says:

    Let’s hope that all the business players Maria mentions have finally learned the right lessons, e.g.

    Stop expecting unrealistic improvements,

    Stop the cult of personality around the superintendent,

    Stop the PR spin.

    Respect and value hard-working teachers,

    Focus the (generous) budget on classroom instruction,

    Slash the excess overhead expense – far higher than in any neighboring system,

    Freeze capital spending and drop campaign to renew the penny sales tax – the system is shrinking

    Create an independent audit and whistle-blower channel that teachers and staff can trust,

    Work with GSU and UGA education experts to apply best teaching practices for improving learning in urban schools and

    Differentiate the student achievements in middle class/professional neighborhoods so that the APS scandal does not ruin Atlanta’s ability to attract high-talent businesses.Report

    Reply

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