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School board chairman likely to be ousted

Now embroiled in distrust and infighting, the APS must find a way out of gridlock

By any standards, Khaatim Sherrer El is a go-getter. At 29, he's president of his local Rotary Club, a board member of the Wren's Nest museum and the Fulton County Board of Health, and the youngest-ever chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education. In fact, when he assumed the school board's top spot last September during a contentious board coup, he was already a veteran, having first been elected to the APS board six years earlier while still an undergraduate at Morehouse College.

But, six months after taking the chairman's seat in a still-controversial board vote that arguably violated the group's state charter, El hasn't managed to quell infighting in a school board that's largely lost public confidence, according to both his critics and supporters. Even a series of secret meetings by local movers and shakers failed to find a workable solution.

Which means Atlanta likely will soon see another board reshuffling as El is replaced as chairman - either voluntarily or not.

For this article, we spoke mostly off the record to well-placed insiders - both partisans and impartial observers - who paint a fairly bleak picture of the current state of the APS.

Certainly, the ongoing state and federal investigations into a system-wide cheating scandal cast a dark shadow over the district administration and outgoing Superintendent Beverly Hall. In just the past month, two of the district's top officials - including Assistant Superintendent Kathy Augustine, Hall's presumed successor - were accused of bad-mouthing investigators to subordinates, actions that could be construed as obstruction of justice. Most recently, state investigators accused Hall's office of "withholding evidence and intimidating witnesses," and obtained a judge's order forbidding district officials from interviewing or disciplining system employees in relation to the investigations.

The state probe, led by ex-prosecutors Mike Bowers, Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde, is not expected to be completed until late May or early June, but sources say the evidence compiled so far about widespread cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests - and the subsequent cover-up - is both compelling and damning. Criminal indictments are expected to reach far up the district food chain.

In contrast, little is known of the federal investigation, but the stakes are equally high. If school officials are found to have fudged test scores in order to meet federal educational standards - and claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants that were used in part to pay employee bonuses - then administrators could be charged with defrauding the federal government.

And yet, to read the January report prepared by a team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the private group authorized to confer accreditation on local secondary schools, one might imagine that the only problem the APS has is with board governance and leadership.

Without even referencing the cheating scandal and the state investigation, the SACS report focuses entirely on board dysfunction, taking members to task for not observing "proper board leadership behaviors" and implying, implausibly, that the biggest blow to school system morale has been the change of board chairman.

If the SACS report comes across as oddly single-minded, it shouldn't be a big surprise. The Decatur-based organization is closely associated with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which has long wielded strong influence over the Atlanta school board, even recruiting Hall for the superintendent's post. Mark Elgart, CEO of SACS, is also listed among the Chamber's leadership.

The Chamber was instrumental in selecting members for the APS' "Blue Ribbon Commission" that oversaw an internal probe into the cheating scandal. The commission's report, which minimized the test-erasures as a few isolated incidents, was immediately branded as a whitewash by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who launched the state investigation.

Since then, however, the Chamber and its surrogates have pushed mightily to have El replaced as chairman. El may have had these efforts on his mind last October when he fired off an ill-conceived memo in response to a letter by Elgart to Hall describing the El-led school board as being in a "state of gridlock."

"Dr. Elgart ... runs the risk of undermining the credibility of his own organization by contending that his position on a political dispute enables him to make summary judgments and exact extreme penalties," concluded El's memo, which some observers have described as something of a raised middle finger to SACS and Elgart.

In an effort to bring a measure of civility to a tense situation, civil rights veteran Joseph Lowery convened a series of highly hush-hush meetings on successive Saturdays last month in the basement of a prominent southside church to bring the warring factions together. According to participants of the first meeting, Mayor Kasim Reed advocated a return to the previous board leadership, a theme echoed over the two subsequent meetings by Chamber supporters. But with El holding firm to the chairman's seat and no further progress apparent, the closed-door meetings were abandoned after three sessions.

To help break the gridlock among distrustful school board members, a group of well-connected citizens has pulled together a slate of prominent Atlantans willing to serve on a search committee for Hall's replacement. The thinking behind the move is that the last group of do-gooders tapped by the APS - the members of the Blue Ribbon Commission - got burned when their report was discredited, making it harder for the school board to recruit fresh volunteers.

But other sources say the first order of business will likely be easing El out of the chairman's seat, either by a super-majority board vote - meaning at least one of his current supporters will need to flip - or, as a last resort, an amendment to an education bill currently before state Legislature.

No one is willing to guess who the next chairman will be - although it likely won't be El's predecessor LaChandra Butler Burks - but the move is seen as one that could bring a measure of stability to the school system.

Until the state wraps up its investigation, that is. Then the shit really hits the fan.

This article has been updated to reflect information that appeared in our print edition.