published Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Atlanta school system cleanup won’t be quick

University of Georgia Chancellor Dr. Erroll B. Davis Jr. talks with staff members of Dalton State College on campus in the Westcott Building recently.
University of Georgia Chancellor Dr. Erroll B. Davis Jr. talks with staff members of Dalton State College on campus in the Westcott Building recently.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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    Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at a news conference in the Capitol to discuss the findings of the special investigation of alleged cheating on test scores in the Atlanta Public School System on Tuesday. Deal said 44 of the 56 schools investigated took part in cheating. Investigators also found that 38 principals were wither responsible for the cheating or were directly involved in it. (AP Photo)

ATLANTA — Atlanta school officials have pledged that nearly 180 educators accused of cheating no longer will work with children, but it could take months to determine who should be fired from the district and who will lose their teaching license.

That means the district could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars paying the salaries of educators who ultimately may be fired but are reassigned to office jobs far from students while administrators work through the process.

It’s not as easy as simply wiping the slate clean and starting over for the 50,000-student district plagued for the past three years by the cheating scandal. Some educators will be fired, but others may be simply suspended or reprimanded, depending on how egregious their actions.

“When it comes to personnel actions, this district follows due process,” spokesman Keith Bromery said. “It’s going to be case-by-case basis in terms of employee actions we’re going to take.”

All educators in the report will be referred to the state Professional Standards Commission, which licenses Georgia teachers, to see if they should have their certification suspended or revoked. And they could face criminal charges — ranging from tampering with state documents to lying to investigators.

Some will be able to collect their pensions, even if they are charged with a crime. If they are convicted, they could lose their pensions or have part of it taken away.

“Our judicial system is innocent until proven guilty, but when you have pretty hard evidence or convincing evidence — especially if it’s something that harms children — people would like to see them face the consequences more quickly,” said Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and a former school district superintendent. “But it’ll have to run its course.”

More than half of the 178 named in the state’s report have said they did nothing wrong, even if multiple colleagues accused them of cheating. Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis said each case will be handled individually, though it’s not clear how many of the educators still work in the district.

“I believe people who cheat students should lose the right to be in front of students going forward,” Davis told reporters after the state released its 800-page investigative report Tuesday.

Regardless, Atlanta school officials will have to hire new teachers and administrators to fill the jobs — and quickly because students return to school in a month.

Meanwhile, for the accused educators, there won’t be a quick resolution.

It can take years for educators to lose their teaching licenses, depending on how much they appeal the decision by the state Professional Standards Commission. Some cases make it all the way to the state Supreme Court, said Gary Walker, head of the commission’s ethics division.

Three of the commission’s investigators will handle these cases full time, Walker said. He said he hopes to have each case presented to the commission for a vote by December, but educators can appeal to the state attorney general’s office and then to the courts.

“We’ve had some cases, depending on how long the appeals take, that were three or four or five years,” Walker said. “It’s not uncommon to go two years.”

In the meantime, those educators can stay on the job and collect a paycheck, or they can move to other districts or other states to teach. They also can work at private schools, some of which don’t require a teaching license.

In all, 82 educators listed in the investigation admitted to cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, either by changing answers, giving the right answer to students or ordering others to alter exams after they had been turned in. The accused are just a fraction of the district’s 6,000 employees, half of which are teachers.

Educators told the state investigators they were pressured by administrators — and sometimes even harassed or threatened — to improve test scores. The investigators found the cheating dated as far back as 2001, and that former Superintendent Beverly Hall either knew or should have known about the cheating.

Hall’s attorney repeatedly has denied the allegations.

The testing problems first came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable. The state released audits of test results after the newspaper published its analysis of the test scores.

The state investigation was launched last August by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who was upset over what he called “woefully inadequate” probes in Atlanta and Dougherty County schools. The state’s investigation into Dougherty County is ongoing.

Davis has vowed to overhaul the district’s ethics complaint division, create a system that triggers an investigation if there are unusual increases in test scores and require ethics training for all employees. More changes will happen as the district grapples with the fallout from the scandal, he said.

“I do not accept that a focus on performance causes people to cheat,” Davis said. “We must continue to demand performance. I want excellence as a standard at every level.”

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