By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 15, 2011
During the course of the cheating scandal within the Atlanta Public Schools, a myriad of accusations have been leveled against the Atlanta business community for its role in the ordeal.
Business leaders have been accused of supporting former Superintendent Beverly Hall unconditionally, for believing in the extraordinary academic improvements under way at the Atlanta Public Schools, for having direct business interests in the school system’s affairs, for orchestrating the community’s response to the investigation before all the results were known, and for caring more about Atlanta’s brand and reputation than students.
But after conducting interviews with more than a dozen key business and civic leaders, a far more complex, and much less sinister, picture emerges.
In fact, the story could be a case study of how the Atlanta business community deals with issues and addresses conflict — often preferring to keep its harshest criticism within private meetings while presenting a non-confrontational demeanor in public.
As far back as a year ago, business leaders were working behind the scenes to try to get Hall to accept responsibility and act in a decisive manner to address the cheating problems head-on.
But the superintendent did not follow their advice, prolonging the pain of the scandal, damaging her own legacy, and creating a sense of betrayal and uncertainty about the Atlanta Public Schools both within and outside the system.
The Atlanta business community became directly involved in the cheating scandal on March 1, 2009, when it created the Blue Ribbon Commission to do an independent investigation of the cheating scandal.
The commission’s investigation was established and funded by the Atlanta Education Fund, an entity that had been created to attract corporate and philanthropic dollars to support academic reforms under way at APS.
The chairman and founder of the Atlanta Education Fund was John Rice, the then-Atlanta-based vice chairman of General Electric Co., which had become the biggest private donor to APS, giving it more than $22 million in financial support.
The 15-member commission was chaired by Gary Price, Atlanta managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
The investigation, which was presented Aug. 2, 2010, used two outside firms with no subpoena powers or ability to grant immunity. It concluded that there had been rampant cheating at 12 schools and identified 109 educators who clearly had been directly involved.
“A week before we issued the report, we met with Beverly Hall,” Price said. “We told her what was going to be in there. She wasn’t a happy camper. We were communicating with her, saying ‘this is bigger than you.’ We felt the response needed to be immediate and decisive.”
Price was surprised by her response, believing she should have been disappointed and outraged by what had occurred. “But the reaction was more about her not knowing — and that the cheating was not a systemic issue,” Price said.
A few days after the report was released, GE’s Rice and retired Georgia-Pacific executive Jim Bostic, who represented the Atlanta district on the state Board of Education, held a private meeting with Hall.
At that meeting, both Rice and Bostic advised her to fire the 12 principals at the “worst of the worst” schools, as well as any teachers who had obviously been involved in the cheating. They told her to set aside $1 million in a legal fund to pay for any lawsuits they might file against APS.
As Bostic remembered the conversation, they told Hall: “You should haul each of them in and fire them right away and say you’ve lost confidence in them. That would be the right thing to do. And more importantly, it would send a shock wave through APS that it would not tolerate this behavior.”
Rice and Bostic were hopeful she would act on their advice. But a few days later, she called them and said that her staff had convinced her that the employees had contracts and rights to due process. Instead, the 12 principals were reassigned but continued to be employed with pay.
“John and I both said: ‘We think that’s a mistake,’ ” Bostic said. “We were appalled by what had happened, and we thought she should get in front of it.”
Looking back, Bostic said that if she had followed their advice, “It would have changed everything.”
About a week before her “State of APS” speech on Aug. 17, Hall had a lunch meeting with major funders, many of whom gave her similar advice. In fact, one key civic leader sent her a long e-mail after that meeting urging her to take full responsibility at her “State of APS” speech for what had occurred.
After the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue brought in former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson to do a full investigation with the help of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with subpoena powers, authority to administer lie detector tests and the ability to grant legal immunity to those who confessed.
At the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s meeting on July 11, they credited the “Blue Ribbon Commission” for laying the foundation for their investigation.
But the state investigators said in their report that “in many ways, the community was duped by Dr. Hall.”
Asked if the commission had been duped, Price responded: “I think many of us feel duped by the entire leadership of the system. It is clear that there were important documents withheld from the Blue Ribbon Commission.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who became actively involved in APS issues although there is no direct city role, said this should be a period of “shared responsibility” and blame.
“Everything that is occurring now is 20/20 hindsight,” Reed said, adding that he could see why business leaders stood by Hall for as long as they did because of all the national accolades she had received. “You should not punish people because they weren’t psychic.”
Russ Hardin, president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, was particularly distressed by the way certain business leaders had been portrayed during the past 18 months.
“John Rice, Gary Price and other business leaders have been unfairly maligned in this,” Hardin said. “They were and still are some of our best civic leaders. They got caught up in a sordid chapter in Atlanta’s history. They were subjected to absolutely unfair criticisms of conspiracy. It’s been an ugly chapter for Atlanta. I hope that we have now hit bottom.”