APS cheating report only the first step to recovery

Need to figure out where the money went, what kids learned

Follow the money.

That should be the next step in unraveling the apparently systemic fraud and malfeasance of the school system under Superintendent Beverly Hall, according to a former chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education.

"We need to call for a forensic audit to find out where the money went," says Aaron Watson, a lawyer and accountant who left the school board a decade ago and now serves on the Atlanta City Council. "We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade."

That's right, not just millions, but hundreds of millions. For much of the noughts, the Atlanta Public Schools was a system awash in money: taxpayer funds, corporate contributions and private foundation grants. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the GE Foundation, for instance, each have kicked in more than $20 million to bolter the APS' bottom line, and the Atlanta Education Fund, a spin-off of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, has helped raise millions more.

Take last year for example. In 2010, the Atlanta Board of Education approved an annual budget of $589 million, nearly $30 million more than the $560 million general fund budget for the city of Atlanta. Add to that another half-million dollars in revenue from the 1 cent local option sales tax, plus public and private grants, and the APS had well over $800 million to spend for the year.

By comparison, Fulton County schools budgeted a cool $1 billion for 2010, but that system has more than twice as many students — 98,000 kids to the APS' 48,000 kids. The reported $13,500 that Atlanta schools spent per student last year was 50 percent more than the amount spent by Fulton, and nearly twice as much as the per-child cost in larger systems such as Cobb and Gwinnett.

If, as now seems obvious, the APS' money was not used to produce the remarkable educational gains that Hall and her supporters were claiming, then where did it go?

Chunks of that money, of course, went into the pockets of Hall and her lieutenants in the form of arguably unearned bonuses — more than $582,000 for Hall alone since 1999 — but that's relative chicken feed. Watson suggests reviewing the district's spending on so-called consultants, educational experts and other private venders.

For instance, after the Watson-led school board agreed on a settlement to oust Hall's predecessor, Jerome Harris, from the superintendent's office after deeming him a lousy fit for the system, Hall rehired Harris as a consultant to return to Atlanta to help "coach" teachers and administrators.

And it's not as if APS can afford to tighten its belt any time soon. For the first months of the upcoming school year, the system will be required to effectively "quarantine" hundreds of teachers tainted by the cheating scandal — taking them out of the classroom, but keeping them on the payroll while the legal process runs its course. As a result, the system will likely be forced to temporarily hire new teachers and reassign some administrators to classroom duty.

Even under the rosiest scenario, the unveiling of the governor's report into the cheating scandal represents only the beginning of a long process of investigation, legal action and, ultimately, of rebuilding. But then, the problem has been a full decade in the making.

Former AJC reporter Paul Donsky was newly assigned to cover the APS in 2001 when the scores of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test were released. It was only the second year for the statewide test and some southside Atlanta schools posted incredible gains. In a system where 70 percent of the students had failed to meet state standards the year before, some schools were reporting increases of more than 40, 50 and even 60 percentage points.

"I saw test scores take this big jump," says Donsky, who now works for a PR agency. "It struck me as suspicious."

But when he wrote that first article expressing skepticism about test scores, Donsky was subjected to a style of push-back from Hall's office that has become familiar to reporters, investigators and critics in the years since.

"I was accused of not believing that inner-city black kids could learn," he says. "They made it very personal, as if I had some kind of character flaw because I was questioning the test results. It was like, 'How dare you?'"

One of the experts Donsky consulted was Gary Henry, a GSU professor who was also director of the Council of School Performance, a state board charged with evaluating educational programs. Henry agreed that the CRCT results demanded closer inspection. And he made an offer to Hall to do just that.

"A lot of us were talking about it at the time because the numbers seemed too good to be true," recalls Henry, now director of the Carolina Institute for Public Policy at the University of North Carolina. "We wanted to see if we could ferret out some of the irregularities with a relatively cheap computer program.

"But the Atlanta schools said, no thanks, they were monitoring themselves," he adds.

In retrospect, it was a terrible idea to have a culture in which the superintendent's bonuses depend on test scores with no independent oversight, Henry explains. Georgia would be well-advised to create a body with the authority to audit the school system and which would answer to the governor, the Legislature and the state Board of Education rather than to local officials, he says.

Of course, local parents could be forgiven for not wondering why their elected school board members didn't keep a closer eye on what school administrators were up to. But one of the quiet changes to have taken place during Hall's tenure was the continual undermining of the power of the school board, as the board voted to cede increasing authority to the superintendent, making oversight more difficult.

Watson, the former board chairman, is glad the board put its superintendent search on the back burner for now. It will likely take another year or two of reforms before the system will have a chance to woo a decent candidate to fill the job. In the meantime, he says, "We may need a fresh assessment of every student in the system. We really don't know where these kids stand."

NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the APS' 2010 budget.