How the business community dealt with the scandal at Atlanta’s public schools

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.”

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.

13 replies
  1. cityzen says:

    Aw c/mon Maria. You’ve airbrushed this story to a fare thee well. Edupac, the Chamber’s group, insisted on the election of a rubber stamp board that never held Hall accountable. They encouraged an ‘all PR all the time’ approach to APS. Did you ever look at the APS website, a paean to Hall that would have embarrassed Stalin at the height of his cult of personality?

    Good people had been questioning the credibility of phenomenal testing gains since the start of Hall’s reign of terror. Honest teachers and administrators who objected to cheating are the adult victims here, not an elite bunch of irresponsible business execs who should have stayed out of what they didn’t understand.

    Gary Price’s “Blue Ribbon” was engaged in a coverup that pretended that many of the cheating schools had not cheated. It’s no use complaining that they didn’t have subpoena power. They had instructions to dismiss the AJC and state analyses of all but a dozen cases of cheating, and that’s what they did. Minimize the problem and move on. Luckily for us, the AJC and Perdue were having none of it, otherwise Hall and her cronies would still be defrauding the kids – and the taxpayers.Report

    Reply
  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    I agree with cityzen, and want to add that both the State report and Maria’s “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” summary neglect to mention the role of the Chamber in general and Sam Williams in particular. The AJC documented that Sam was deeply involved in packing the Blue Ribbon Commission with people who had a business relationship with the APS.

    We’ve gotten past one whitewash of this situation – let’s not have any more.Report

    Reply
  3. Question Man says:

    Isn’t it hard to believe the Atlanta business community worked aggressively behind-the-scenes to get to the bottom of the APS cheating scandal mess, and that its positive posturing about APS was merely to show solidarity? Isn’t it more likely the business community actively supported non-accountability at APS and consciously ignored mounting evidence of troublesome facts because the cherished Atlanta “brand” might otherwise be at risk? Maria, doesn’t your article reflect yet another concerted effort from the business community to rewrite the truth, and doesn’t the July 17 AJC front-page story paint a far more thorough–and accurate–view of how Atlanta’s business community was deeply mired in and fully supportive of a corrupt and morally bankrupt system?

    http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta/major-execs-invested-in-1020615.htmlReport

    Reply
  4. mariasaporta says:

    Dear readers,

    Thanks for your comments. In my 31 years of reporting, I have come to realize that truth has many layers and their are variations of the truth based on one’s point of view. That is most certainly the case with this story.

    First of all, the Atlanta business community is not one entity. There were several groups and organizations involved with APS throughout the years, and there was not always unanimity between all the players. It is too simplistic to believe that all members of the business and philanthropic community were speaking or acting with one voice.

    That said, many in the business community (and the community at large) were guilty of wanting to believe the academic gains within APS were real, and many wanted to give Beverly Hall the benefit of the doubt.

    What my story revealed (and what had not been previously reported because many business leaders have been inept in communicating their points of view) is that those involved with the Blue Ribbon Commission recognized there was a serious problem in many of Atlanta’s public schools. It focused its investigation on the 12 schools that they believed show the most blatant evidence of cheating, but the report said the cheating was not limited to those 12 schools.

    It was at that point, late July and early August 2010 when several people in the business community closest to the investigation began distancing themselves from Beverly Hall.

    To me, this is one of the defining moments in the story between the business community and APS.

    First, business leaders chose to do their scolding behind closed doors rather than coming out publicly and renouncing their past support of Hall and admitting that they had been wrong in believing in the academic gains that had been achieved. All too often, that has been Atlanta’s way — work behind the scenes and hope the situation resolves itself. Given today’s environment, the business community might want to reconsider that approach in helping resolve Atlanta’s thorniest issues.

    The other defining moment to me was Beverly Hall’s reaction to Blue Ribbon Commission’s investigation and to growing evidence that cheating had occurred under her watch. I believe there is a fascinating story here on human nature, behavior and psychology that caused Hall to react in a defensive posture rather than owning up to what had happened and taken responsibility of the situation. There’s no doubt that Beverly Hall is a smart woman who had made some real reforms at APS, but her misguided reaction to the cheating scandal undermined all the accomplishments.

    I am not one to criticize my former and fellow colleagues at the AJC. That said, the AJC has had a story line throughout its reporting, and sometimes it seemed as though it was more interested in painting the facts to support that story line rather than presenting the facts in an unbiased way. Also, because some business leaders had been burned by the inaccurate portrayal of their role, they quit talking to the AJC. That means the paper did not have the benefit of hearing their points of view. As a result, there has been a dangerous disconnect between the newspaper and several members of the business community.

    In closing, in reporting this story, I was left with a deep sense of sadness by the whole situation — the students who were cheated, the leaders who were “duped,” the distance between our metro paper and the community, the psychological failings of some who should have known better, that some have seized on this sad situation to further their own prejudices and biases.

    All in all, it’s been a painful period in Atlanta’s history. And I only hope that we’ve learned from our mistakes. But given the polarization of people’s views in today’s environment, I’m fearful that we have learned little.

    Respectfully,

    MariaReport

    Reply
  5. cityzen says:

    1. What business leader(s) challenged the Hall approach to running APS as a PR machine that touted test results to the exclusion of all else and used bully tactics to get its way? And when evidence of cheating became obvious in 2009, what business leader advocated for a thorough clean-up rather than a cover-up?

    2. The BRC used Caveon to try to challenge the state’s evidence on cheating and limit the damage to 12 schools. 44 schools actually cheated. The huge drop in scores in 2010, when cheating was made much harder by state intervention, proved this to those who doubted the wrong-to-right analysis and this evidence was available before the BRC finally reported.

    3. It was not Hall’s reaction to the BRC that was her failing. It was her entire decade’s approach of demanding test results or else – and of buffaloing those who questioned the sudden, non-credible improvements and the poor teachers who could not produce total transformations in their students overnight.

    4. Usually, society applauds newspapers for doing their job of rooting out scandals that have major social and economic impact. Washington Post and Watergate come to mind. For a journalist to blame the messenger is astonishing.

    5. This is not about prejudice, although anyone who expressed common sense skepticism has been smeared thusly. Was GSU’s Gary Henry prejudiced when he early on questioned the sudden turnaround in scores? No, he was applying his professional knowledge of other school systems’ experience on how much improvement could realistically be made through the sorts of (minimal) changes that APS had implemented in the classroom.

    Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The business elite is not used to being held accountable and has apparently not learned the right lessons here, let alone fessed up and apologized to Atlanta. If the voters reject the Chamber’s next slate of nominees to the school board, perhaps we’ll see some belated learning.Report

    Reply
  6. Question Man says:

    Don’t the facts show the Blue Ribbon Commission was hip-deep in the effort to whitewash the APS cheating scandal (including trying to “finesse” the issue past Governor Deal)? The BRC consisted of hand-picked, smart executives, and doesn’t it defy logic to suggest they were bamboozled, especially when they were tasked with investigating serious claims of unethical behavior? Isn’t it more likely the BRC was in lock-step with the views of Shirley Franklin who, as recently as June 23, 2011, remained an unbridled supporter of Beverly Hall (perhaps based on the illusion the problem would “resolve itself)?”

    http://bloggingwhileblue.blogspot.com/2011/06/thank-you-beverly-hall-atlanta-schools.html#more

    Maria, you’re correct the business community is not one entity, but aren’t we talking about the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the principal voice of the Atlanta business community? And would anyone disagree that the Chamber should start doing things differently than they have in the past, perhaps with openness, thoroughness, inclusiveness, and a realization that actual improvements are more important than mirages.

    By the way, I’m always most suspicious when someone tells me they will support my position behind-the-scenes, but that they must take a different position publicly; aren’t you? Yet you believe the Chamber’s current storyline?Report

    Reply
  7. cityzen says:

    One more thing. An investigative hypothesis for why Hall refused to fire the 12 principals last August is that they would have fingered her Area Superintendents, who were indeed found by the Bowers investigation to have been part of the cheating scheme. And things might well have unraveled from there to the very top. With red flags like these, finessing damage control past Gov Perdue was not taking the high road.Report

    Reply
  8. mariasaporta says:

    To Question Man and Cityzen,

    First of all, you may have noticed that the Metro Atlanta Chamber was not mentioned in my stories. They would not agree to an interview, much to my disappointment. But from my reporting, and contrary to common perception, I do not believe the Metro Atlanta Chamber was a pivotal player in this story after the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission. There were others in the business and philanthropic communities who were more involved and closer to the situation — mainly the Atlanta Education Fund and the Atlanta Committee for Progress. But, for whatever reason, the Metro Atlanta Chamber was mistakenly identified as pulling the strings when they were doing a duck and cover.

    As for the Blue Ribbon Commission, I believe that they did as good an investigation as they could given their constraints from all sides. If you read that report, as I did this past week, you will find that they identified 109 out of the 178 or 182 educators that were mentioned in the Bowers investigation. They also did not say that the cheating was limited to those 12 schools, just that those were the “worst of the worst,” a fact that has not been disputed. And remember, they were given about two months to do their investigation (without all the data or investigative powers) while the Bowers folks had 10 months.

    Cityzen, let me be clear and specific. The AJC did a commendable job in bringing the cheating scandal to light. It was exactly what fine journalism is supposed to do — uncover information that may be uncomfortable and unpopular — but necessary to expose for the sake of the greater community.

    But from my journalistic experience and reporting, I believe the AJC crossed a line in two specific cases — and by crossing those lines, it undermined its own journalistic integrity.

    Example No. 1:

    From today’s AJC: And, the district’s critics say, Williams showed his hand in describing the inquiry’s aim: “We 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.”

    As I read this statement, it says: “We will let the facts from this investigation guide us in our support (or lack thereof) of Dr. Hall and the next steps the Atlanta Public Schools system needs to take.”

    Example No. 2:

    Also from today’s AJC: The commission’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.

    It was disingenuous for the AJC to imply that business leaders were involved with APS because their companies were benefitting financially from their involvement. Given the size and scope of the businesses involved, it’s hard to imagine any organization in town where there had not been some kind of business relationship. But these CEOs invested countless hours of their time and contributed substantial dollars to help with reforms at APS. The business dealings their firms may have had in the past paled in comparison to their contributions. But that story, more than any other, implied that there were sinister motives to the involvement by executives.

    In closing, I believe that business involvement in our local institutions is a necessary component to making our communities work. My fear is that the kind of reporting and the kind of criticism that has been leveled against the business community will lead to a backing away from executives getting involved in our civic problems, and that way we all lose.

    As I was doing my reporting, especially in the cases of John Rice and Gary Price, I couldn’t help but think: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

    It’s obvious to me that I won’t change some people’s hard-and-fast opinion on this very sad story. But I did feel the need to carefully explain my position so that those who still have an open mind would at least hear my point of view. I gave it my best shot.

    Thanks for reading.

    MariaReport

    Reply
  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    @mariasaporta

    Maria, it is my understanding that the Atlanta Committee for Progress and the Atlanta Local Education Fund were created by the Metro Atlanta Chamber. To state that the Chamber wasn’t involved when its children were involved is disingenuous.

    As far as Blue Ribbon Commission membership, the Chamber advertises that it has 4000+ members. It could easily have appointed members who had no business relationships or vested interest in the APS. Instead, they went the opposite direction.

    I agree that business involvement in support of local institutions is desirable. However, in this instance business leaders lost sight of APS’ primary purpose and instead focused on maintaining its facade as part of their marketing program.Report

    Reply
  10. cityzen says:

    First, Maria, I’m impressed and appreciate that you take time to respond to anonymous commenters.

    I think the root issue is that those of us who sensed how badly things were really going at APS have a decade of stored-up angst to vent at the apologists and cheerleaders who funded election of a rubber-stamp board slate and quashed all questioning.

    I am a bit amazed at your distinction between organizations that have such major overlaps. Take John Rice: he is a former chair of the Chamber, a former chair of the Chamber’s education committee, chairman and founder of the Atlanta Education Fund, and member of the board of the Atlanta Committee for Progress. You can see why some of us lump these organs of the business elite together. In any case, the Chamber’s role after the Blue Ribbon Commission reported and the ‘finessing past the Governor’ failed is of little concern: the damage to Atlanta was done by that time.

    I do agree with you that hints of conspiracy theory – in particular that the Vice Chair of GE would be motivated by contracts with APS whose value is not even a rounding error at GE – discredit some reporting. In the overall scheme of the dogged analysis and pursuit of the story, this is small potatoes. The important point is that the business elite had blinders on while throwing its weight around throughout the Hall era, and that was desperately unhealthy. How many of them had kids or grandkids in APS? How many knew anything about testing or classroom teaching? There was an arrogance and ignorance here that needs to be recognized.Report

    Reply
  11. mariasaporta says:

    @Burroughston Broch

    BB,

    Just a quick clarification. The Atlanta Committee for Progress was created by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. It was NOT an outgrowth of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. The Atlanta Education Fund was an initiative that was born out of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, and it became its own relatively independent entity.

    As far as appointees to the Blue Ribbon Commission, the Metro Atlanta Chamber named some and the Atlanta Education Fund named others. I think the goal was to get business leaders who had expressed an interest in public education. As I said earlier, whatever business ties existed were barely worth mentioning, and connecting the two was grossly misleading.

    On your last point, I do believe that it’s worthy of debate. Remember, APS was getting national accolades at the time, and many in the community — both inside and outside APS — wanted to believe real progress was being made.

    As Atlanta Mayor Reed told me: “Everything that is occurring now is 20/20 hindsight. You should not punish people because they weren’t psychic.”

    We could argue this all night and all day. But I believe we get in dangerous territory when we start attaching motives to various people when we don’t really know the full situation.

    MariaReport

    Reply
  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    @mariasaporta @Burroughston Broch

    Maria, all of these various “community” organizations have one common denominator – they are largely peopled and controlled by the same small group that also controls the Chamber. In the corporate world of boards of directors, these are called interlocking directorates and are discouraged. For example, regardless of which hat Phil Kent or Larry Gellerstedt puts on for a meeting, they are still acting for the Chamber.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.