Hour after hour, day after day last week, Tamara Cotman sat at the defense table as if she’d been sculpted into her chair. She hardly moved a muscle and kept facing straight ahead, not turning her head toward the many witnesses called to testify in the case against her.
The silent stoicism of Cotman, a former Atlanta Public Schools regional director, was at odds with testimony that portrayed her as an energetic, demanding and accept-no-excuses taskmaster who kept watch over 21 schools. She kept her hands folded on the table in front of her and never took a single note. At least outwardly, Cotman seemed unaffected by what was going on around her.
Yet a Fulton County Superior Court jury is expected to decide soon whether the career educator committed a felony: influencing a potential witness at the height of a state investigation into test-cheating. If convicted, Cotman faces a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Cotman is the first to go to trial out of the 35 former APS administrators and educators charged in the test-cheating scandal.
While Cotman is not facing a test-cheating charge in this trial, Fulton prosecutors appear to be using her case as a quasi-dress rehearsal for their massive racketeering conspiracy case scheduled to be tried next spring, in which she also will be a defendant. In this trial, former Gov. Sonny Perdue testified why he appointed special investigators and assigned the GBI to look into test tampering. Teachers tearfully admitted they engaged in cheating. For hours, jurors were educated about statistical analysis and the probabilities of wrong-to-right erasure marks on standardized tests.
The trial’s outcome could be highly influential. If the prosecution obtains a conviction, it could lead other defendants to enter into plea negotiations. If Cotman is acquitted, it may embolden those same defendants to fight their charges at trial. Throughout the week, lawyers representing some of the 34 other defendants filtered in and out of Judge Jerry Baxter’s courtroom to gauge the strength of the prosecution.
Cotman is accused of retaliating against Jimmye Hawkins, the former interim principal at Scott Elementary School. Hawkins testified last week she was at a principals meeting in 2010 that was overseen by Cotman, who directed the principals to write “Go to hell” memos to GBI agents who had been conducting interviews at their schools. Hawkins testified she found the exercise to be both appalling and intimidating.
Hawkins and at least two other principals at that meeting told Mark MyGrant, then principal of North Atlanta High School, that Cotman had directed them to write angry memos to GBI agents. For this reason, MyGrant said, he wrote an anonymous letter about it to Hall and members of the school board. That launched an internal investigation.
Cotman’s lawyer, Benjamin Davis, said no decision had been reached as to whether his client will testify in the trial, which could wrap up sometime in the coming week.
But Cotman, in eight hours of interviews with state investigators conducted on Feb. 24, 2011, resolutely and repeatedly stated she did nothing wrong. She sat down for the interviews shortly after she had been transferred out of her job and while the school system was investigating the so-called “Go to hell” meeting. Recordings of the interviews were obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an Open Records Act request.
Speaking to investigators, Cotman retraced her career in education, which began in her hometown of Wichita, Kan. She rose steadily through the ranks from elementary school teacher to principal and then assistant superintendent of the city’s public school system.
In 2004, a headhunter tried to recruit her to come work at APS. After initially declining, Cotman accepted an invitation to have a one-on-one meeting with then-Superintendent Beverly Hall, which sealed the deal.
“As I listened to her and I listened to her vision for the system and urban children, I realized that her belief system about poor minority kids very much mirrored mine — that they could learn despite the odds, despite their family background,” Cotman said.
Hall is among the 35 charged in the racketeering indictment and denies the charges, her lawyers have said.
When Cotman told her colleagues in Wichita she was joining APS, some tried to dissuade her. “Don’t you know they fire people there?” one asked her.
Cotman told investigators she knew APS had a reputation for massive turnover, and she said Hall had talked a great deal about accountability. “But that didn’t scare me because I’d done good work from where I came from,” Cotman said.
Cotman was assigned to oversee schools across the northern arc of Atlanta. By 2009, 15 of her 21 schools had been flagged by the state as having suspiciously high test scores. Fulton prosecutors say Cotman should have known the gains students were making on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests were impossible.
During her 2011 interview with state investigators, Cotman said she had referred any complaints about test cheating to APS’ Office of Internal Resolution.
“I’ve never been naive enough to think that there are not people who have integrity issues, have made poor decisions and have compromised the integrity of the test and the children they serve,” she said. But as for widespread cheating, she was not yet convinced.
“I’m still waiting on someone to produce evidence,” she told investigators. “I’m waiting on people to come forward, to say, ‘I cheated.’”
“All of that’s happened, unfortunately,” Richard Hyde, one of the special investigators, informed her in the interview. “People have sat in this very room and admitted their transgressions and involvement in cheating. … We’ve had teachers and principals say all of that. So when you read our report and see people going to jail you’ll understand that, wow, there really was cheating.”
“I have no clue who initiated it,” Cotman said. “I can tell you I haven’t.”
However, Tonnete Hunter, a former teacher’s assistant at Scott Elementary, testified last week that Cotman rebuked her when she reported she had been told to give students the answers on the 2007 CRCT. “The final word from Ms. Cotman to me was shut up or I will lose my job,” Hunter testified.
Brian Jacob, a University of Michigan professor hired by the District Attorney’s Office to conduct an erasure analysis of the 2009 CRCT test scores, testified that administrators such as Cotman should have known cheating had occurred.
In one example, Jacob cited the high number of wrong-to-right erasures on a English Language Arts test by first-graders at Scott Elementary, one of Cotman’s schools. The probability of that occurring without some kind of tampering, he testified, was 1 in 745,679,236,155,312,000,000,000 — or 1 in 745.7 sextillion.
The influencing-a-witness charge stems from what allegedly happened during the Nov. 17, 2010, meeting Cotman had with 10 principals whose schools were being investigated. During her interview with state investigators, Cotman acknowledged the “Go to hell” memo, but said it was part of a stress-relief exercise, not an intimidation tactic.
At that time, she said, the investigation was taking its toll on her principals.
“I had talked to principals who were extremely frustrated,” she told investigators. “I had talked to teachers who had been cursed at, had been threatened to have their children taken from them if they didn’t say what the investigators wanted to hear. There was a lot of anger.”
Cotman said she had read on the Internet that one strategy for relieving stress was to write an angry letter. So she handed out the “Go to hell” memos to her principals and said, “You can tell anybody to go to hell. You can write how you feel, whoever you’re angry with. I don’t care who it is — the AJC, the investigator, the governor, I don’t care who it is.”
Some principals did address the memo that way. But others, including Hawkins, were aghast. Hawkins testified that after she saw a colleague addressing the memo to “George Bush,” she addressed hers to “Sarah Palin.”
When the exercise was finished, Cotman said, she told principals to tear up the memos and put them in a trash can she held out as she walked around the room.
During her 2011 interview, Cotman said she suspected MyGrant had written the anonymous letter about the meeting. He was close friends with Caitlin Sims, one of the principals who was in attendance. MyGrant, she said, “harbors a lot of bitterness and resentment toward me because I placed him on a professional development plan when he worked with me.”
When asked in the interview about the anonymous letter’s contention that she directed principals to tell the GBI to “Go to hell,” Cotman said: “That is a bald-faced lie.”
Because of reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a state investigation in 2011 found that 185 teachers and administrators in Atlanta Public Schools cheated on the CRCT at 44 schools. Nearly two years later, 35 teachers were indicted on conspiracy charges. Former area director Tamara Cotman is the first of those 35 educators to face trial.
Read our special coverage on “Cheating Our Children” — the investigation and the aftermath. Watch a teacher testify that she was pressured to cheat on tests, and see former Gov. Sonny Perdue on the witness stand at MyAJC.com.