Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, distributed the memo by e-mail on Feb. 26, outlining the steps the school district would take to respond to an emerging scandal about possible cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT. He wrote the memo about two weeks after the state released the findings of an audit that suggested possible cheating in 58 Atlanta schools. Questions also were being raised about Hall’s response to the scandal.–AJC.COM
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The memo said executives from the chamber and from the Atlanta Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports the district, had talked several times about the investigation with Hall and with LaChandra Butler Burks, who chairs the school board. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the memo on Tuesday.
Williams did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday. In a statement issued through a spokeswoman, he described the memo as a “process update” for chamber members.
“Nobody was making decisions for the Atlanta Board of Education except for the board itself,” Williams said. Any suggestion of collusion to compromise the investigation, he said, is “absurd.”
In the February memo, Williams reported that the school board would ask the education fund to empanel a “blue-ribbon” commission to conduct the investigation. He listed 12 of the 15 people who ultimately were appointed to the commission, including its chairman, Gary Price, a managing partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“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,” Williams wrote.
By laying out in advance the course the investigation would take, Williams’ e-mail calls into question the commission’s independence. The Journal-Constitution reported in July that most of the panel’s members had financial, civil or social ties to the district or Hall. Price’s firm, for instance, had collected almost $1.5 million from the district from 2002 to 2006. Its work included analyzing the salaries of Hall and other top district officials.
The commission said this month that cheating, if it occurred, was concentrated in 12 schools, and it recommended possible disciplinary action against 109 district employees. The panel had conducted minimal inquiries into allegations involving hundreds of Atlanta classrooms, and Hall has interpreted the report as an exoneration of the district. The commission reported it found no evidence that Hall or other officials had ordered or condoned cheating, a conclusion based on the absence of confessions.
A spokesman for Hall, Keith Bromery, said school board members agreed to the plan described in the memo.
As news about the memo spread, critics of Hall and the school board quickly denounced what they described as collusion between the district and the chamber. Among them was state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who for the first time called on Hall and Butler Burks to resign.
“It bears out a lot of what we’ve been saying — that the investigation was a set-up with Beverly Hall’s cronies circling the wagons and not really having an independent and transparent investigation,” Fort said.
Top chamber officials have been among Hall’s most ardent supporters since she came to Atlanta from Newark, N.J., in 1999. A political committee associated with the chamber vets school board candidates and issues endorsements. Leaders of various chamber committees also serve on the education fund and actively promote Hall’s vision for the district.
It is not clear how widely Williams’ e-mail was distributed. He referred to a meeting of the chamber’s executive committee the previous week at which the cheating scandal “was discussed at length.”
Because of “the sense of urgency felt by the business community and others,” Williams wrote, the chamber and the education fund had discussed the issue several times with Hall and Butler Burks.
The school board, Williams wrote, would ask the education fund on March 1 to create the blue ribbon panel. It, in turn, would meet for the first time two days later, he wrote.
At that meeting, Williams wrote, the panel would select a firm to conduct the investigation and to recommend “best-in-class” test monitoring, “with the goal of ensuring that the upcoming April test results are unassailable.— AJC.COM