Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Top stories of 2011 — APS scandal, cont'd

Posted By on Tue, Jan 3, 2012 at 2:36 PM

The ongoing Atlanta Public Schools crisis/scandal/apocalypse took a dual-track narrative this past year. On the one hand we had the state, local and rumored federal investigations into the widespread cheating and apparent defrauding of Uncle Sam by school administrators and teachers. On the other hand was the political infighting over leadership of the school board itself.

While I am convinced this second issue will eventually be considered a footnote in the APS testing scandal, it wound up snatching most of the headlines and public attention this year, including the city-wide "Step up or step down" campaign designed to pressure APS board member Khaatim Sherrer El into relinquishing the chairman's seat he had snatched in an arguably illegal board vote in fall 2010.

Granted, the issue of board leadership wasn't a complete red herring, but it was a crisis largely manufactured by Mark Elgart, the Alpharetta-based CEO of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the private firm charged with accrediting public schools across much of the Southeast. You'll remember that Elgart, who has close ties to many of the same business leaders who had backed the APS board's previous leadership, placed the system on probation in January via a preposterous report that scarcely acknowledged the cheating scandal.

What followed was a caustic sideshow, as the board members who supported disgraced Superintendent Beverly Hall fought against the ones who didn't and El struggled — and failed — to lead the board to consensus. The irony is that the school board came out looking like unruly children, distracting the public's attention away from the real villains: Hall, her top administrators and the Metro Chamber of Commerce, which has effectively pulled the strings behind the APS for much of the last decade.

Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis appears to be doing a solid job, but there needs to be more accountability from that position. Hall was allowed to run the office like a Mafia don, with the Chamber as her muscle and a once-reliable board majority as her rubber stamp. With the board's oversight authority systematically limited over the years, there was no one on the inside with the willingness and the means to verify whether hall was actually getting the incredible scholastic results she was claiming.

And if a board member didn't march in lockstep with the majority, it was standard operating procedure for that member to be hit with an ethics complaint and threatened with removal. This summer, ABE members El, Courtney English, Yolanda Johnson and Nancy Meister all faced complaints — and all four had fought efforts by the Chamber to whitewash the cheating scandal. The Chamber was banking, for instance, that English would be kicked off the board over misusing a credit card so it could regain control of the board.

As we all know, El finally did step down in June and the board has since been getting along, but we still haven't seen the flurry of indictments and plea-bargains that many expect, including me. We still need some closure. Bring it home, Paul Howard!

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