Business leaders pushed pro-APS report despite flaws

Business commission withheld doubts about integrity of its own investigation; independence of the commission among the concerns.



In July 2011, a governor’s task force released a blockbuster investigative report that found widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. In the findings, the authors criticized business leaders, including those at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, for a campaign to attack the “messengers” rather than find the truth because they were more concerned with protecting “the Atlanta brand.”

Six months later, chamber president Sam Williams, for 15 years the public face of the business community, spotted a couple of messengers — Bob Wilson and Mike Bowers, two former prosecutors who headed the governor’s task force. It was at the Ritz Carlton, and Georgia Trend magazine was honoring the two lawyers for making its annual list of Georgia’s 100 Most Influential Leaders. Williams, a perennial on that list, started in on Wilson as he left the lunch, telling him he thought the task force took a cheap shot at the business community.

The argument got nasty, according to Wilson and Bowers. Some worried a fist fight was imminent, though Williams said last week, “I never had a testy conversation with Mr. Wilson.” But Wilson remembers standing nose-to-nose with the business community’s unhappy leader and then telling him, “You need to think long and hard about the things we didn’t say.”

What they didn’t say, according to new documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is that those associated with the chamber’s response to the cheating scandal in 2010 peddled a report to parents and the public they knew was incomplete and flawed.

The AJC reviewed previously undisclosed files from the governor’s task force, including a deposition taken from Gary Price, a managing partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, who led an earlier, chamber-backed inquiry into cheating at APS, and a recorded interview investigators made of Williams. The records and recording show that:

  • Williams and Price had misgivings about the independence of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), which promised a fair and unbiased inquiry into the cheating allegations, right from the start because it contained a key ally of former school superintendent Beverly Hall.
  • Auditors hired by the commission to investigate produced a report using methodology that commission and chamber officials worried was flawed. Indeed, the initial draft of the report to the commission had so many problems that Price, himself an experienced auditor of a major auditing firm, called it “garbage” in his testimony to investigators.
  • Despite their private concerns about the commission’s independence and shortcomings, chamber and commission officials nonetheless attempted to sell the commission’s report discounting systemic cheating at APS and exonerating Hall as independent and authoritative.
  • Price told investigators that he and some other commission members did not believe the commission’s report vindicated Hall, as she subsequently claimed it did. But they did not say so publicly or express how “incredibly disappointed” they were when Hall claimed vindication.

 

In 2011, the AJC reported one of Williams’ key deputies at the chamber, who was also a staffer for the commission, authored plan to “finesse” the commission’s report through the governor’s office to win a stamp of approval from then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and silence the commission’s critics in the media.

The new documents and statements to the governor’s investigators paint a more damaging portrait of the business community’s response to the cheating scandal, revealing the private misgivings that some commission members had about the commission’s independence, the quality of its investigation and ultimately its effectiveness right from the beginning.

They also suggest key motivator in the business community’s response to the scandal was the perceived harm to the city’s image — and even its housing values.

Recently, Fulton County indictments against 35 people tied to Atlanta schools, including Hall, allege that incredible gains in student achievement, long touted and defended by business leaders and others, were actually the results of a wide-ranging criminal enterprise.

In the days following those unprecedented indictments, one faction has been notably silent: the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Chamber officials were among Hall’s most vocal supporters as reports of cheating became public.

Now many of those same business leaders are declining comment on a widening scandal that may do serious harm to the city’s ability to recruit new business. A dozen commission members contacted by the AJC declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment. Only Price agreed to talk to the AJC.

Williams cancelled a sit-down interview with the AJC last week and, through a spokeswoman, instead issued terse responses to written questions. In his statement, Williams made little mention of his personal role or response to the scandal.

“Throughout the investigation, the Chamber’s primary concern was the impact on the children and the integrity of our schools,” the statement said. “The Blue Ribbon Commission referred more than 100 individuals to APS for further investigation. Business leaders and members of the Chamber were shocked to learn of the depth of the crisis within APS.”

Chamber invested in APS, Hall

In 2010, Williams asked to have lunch with Bowers and Wilson shortly after they had been named to head the governor’s task force, according to the two investigators, who are in private law practice in separate firms. Bowers is a former state attorney general and Wilson was district attorney in DeKalb County.

Williams had a deep interest in the subject. The chamber for years had been involved in supporting education, was key in organizing the Blue Ribbon Commission and was fiercely defensive of the commission when its findings were criticized as inadequate. Indeed, the task force’s very existence stemmed from Perduetas’s belief that the commission’s investigation failed to dig deeply enough.

In an interview, Wilson recalled his lunch with the chamber boss: “He wanted to meet with us. He felt it was all very bad for Atlanta. He wanted us to move very quickly. We needed to get it behind us. He talked about the image of Atlanta.

Asked if he thought Williams was asking them to back off, Wilson responded, “I thought so.” Bowers came away with the same feeling.

In his written response, Williams said only, “I was concerned about the impact on the children and the integrity of our schools.”

The chamber and business community embraced Hall when she arrived in Atlanta in 1999. The school system was in chaos and the new superintendent was seen as a reformer, whose “no excuses” mantra won over business leaders. Hall was numbers driven and focused on data to track the progress of her nearly 50,000 pupils.

The chamber helped found the Atlanta Education Fund, which raised money for the district. The group helped generate millions in grants and donations to the district, including $22 million for science education from the General Electric Foundation. John Rice, a GE executive then based in Atlanta, served on the education fund’s board and worked closely with Hall, frequently lending her advice.

In 2005, the chamber helped the school district hire a public relations firm to boost its image with middle class parents, who largely weren’t sending their children to Atlanta Public Schools.

By 2009, scores in long-troubled schools were surging and Hall was named national superintendent of the year. But all that came as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was looking skeptically at the numbers she touted. In fact, winning the lottery was more probable than some of the increases in the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT).

Private doubts about BRC

In response, state officials performed an analysis and in February 2010 released findings indicating 58 Atlanta schools — or 69 percent the district’s elementary and middle schools — showed a suspicious number of wrong-to-right erasures, indicating widespread cheating.

In the following days, the chamber, the Atlanta Education Fund, Hall and school board chair LaChandra Butler Burks met and came up with the idea of creating a blue ribbon commission to investigate. Prior to its official formation, Williams notified the chamber’s board of directors that the commission would include Rice and several other business leaders connected with the Education Fund and the chamber. It was also to include Butler Burks, an ally of Hall’s.

Price, with Rice’s prodding, joined the group and was tapped as its chairman. They announced the 15-member commission would be “independent.”

Yet the chamber’s internal communications suggest otherwise.

On Feb. 26, 2010, Williams wrote an email to the chamber’s board of directors concerning the formation of the commission concluding, “We will let the facts from this investigation guide us in support of Dr, Hall and the next steps the Atlanta Public Schools needs to take.”

Price, according to statements he later made to the governor’s task force, worried from the start about the group’s independence. He disagreed with the appointment of school chair Butler Burks. But, he said he was told by Rice and Butler Burks, “If she’s not on the board, there’s no investigation.”

He agreed to let her on, but later told investigators, “I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.”

Rice, a GE executive who now works in Asia, could not be reached for comment.

After Butler Burks was picked, Price said the school board, acting through Butler Burks, recommended three more appointees to the commission: Susan Pease Langford, Thelma Malone and Ponder Harrison.

Price, in an interview with the AJC, said others on the commission vouched for the integrity of the school board’s appointees and “their suggestions brought strength to the group.”

To interview school officials and crunch numbers, the commission hired two companies — Caveon, a test security firm, and KPMG, an international auditing firm. But in compiling the numbers, Caveon only compared Atlanta’s 58 suspicious schools to each other, instead of using statewide figures.

The governor’s investigators viewed this approach as deeply flawed and they questioned Price closely about it. They believed using only the “worst of the worst” skewed the data, task force investigator Richard Hyde told the AJC in an interview.

“It’s like trying to determine the average height of an Atlantan by only using Atlanta Hawks,” he said.

Price told investigators he and some commission members argued with the vendor over where to set the statistical threshold to determine when a classroom’s wrong-to-right test answers indicated possible cheating. Price said he and some members wanted a lower threshold, but Caveon wanted a higher one so that innocent educators wouldn’t be implicated. The commission decided to go with Caveon’s model.

Price told investigators he knew KPMG was allowing APS officials to sit in on interviews with teachers and principals, which could have a chilling effect on their testimony. He later told investigators he would have preferred that the interviews be conducted outside the presence of APS officials and acknowledged that some commission members worried the commission’s appearance of independence could be harmed because of it.

But, he noted, other Georgia school districts with suspicious scores had conducted their own investigations. When an investigator asked Price if he knew KPMG sent notes of their interviews to Hall’s office, Price said he did not.

Price also worried KPMG was taking too long and wasting time digging into emails among teachers and APS officials, which he figured would yield little because teachers would be too smart to leave a trail. He was right.

Initial report ‘incoherent’

As the investigation continued, word in the business community was the Blue Ribbon Commission was for naught because of growing impatience from Gov. Perdue. Williams told investigators that Falcons owner Arthur Blank approached him at a cocktail party, saying he didn’t understand why Penny McPhee, who headed a charitable organization carrying Blank’s name, was wasting her time serving on the panel. Gov. Perdue, Blank said, “is going to do everything he can to blow this up,” Williams told investigators.

Just before the commission was formed, Williams told investigators Rice met several times with Perdue and “tried to persuade the governor to tone down the rhetoric.”

Perdue, who did not respond to interview requests, previously told the New York Times that he received “extensive subtle pressure” from business leaders to get him to back off his demands for a thorough investigation. “They’d say, ‘Do you really think there is anything there? We have to make sure we don’t hurt the city.’

“I was dumbfounded that the business community would not want the truth,” Perdue said.

By mid-June of 2010 and with a deadline looming, the commission got a pile of reports from KPMG, whose employees were overwhelmed by the scope of the project, Price told investigators. A seasoned auditor, Price termed the work product alternately “incoherent” and “garbage.” A few weeks later KPMG returned with revisions. Those reports were no better, Price said, so a core group of commission members took over to write the final report.

Later, Wilson noted that each revision softened the tone of the final report. For example, teachers told KPMG investigators that they operated in a “hostile” environment and they were working under constant “fear of retaliation.”

KPMG told the commission of those findings. But as the commission edited its drafts of the final report “things fall to the way side,” Wilson noted. “And things like ‘culture of intimidation, fear of job loss and feel intimidated’ fall out of the report.

“I just got to be honest with you,” Wilson told Price in his deposition, “(it) gets more and more favorable with APS.”

Price told the AJC that the group did note in its report that “the culture is not right. It’s not balanced. It’s too much about performance, not ethics and not about responsible behavior.”

The final Blue Ribbon Commission report released in August 2010 found no district-wide cheating, saying most of it, if it occurred at all, was limited to 12 schools, not the 58 the state found to be suspicious.

Hall touted the report as an exoneration.

But that’s not how Price and some other commission members interpreted the findings, according to Price’s deposition with investigators.

Price told them that he and other members were “incredibly disappointed” Hall used the commission report to vindicate her administration. “I couldn’t believe it,” Price said.

But he and other commission members kept that view private even as an internal strategy was developing at the chamber to sell the report to the public and Gov. Perdue. 

The public campaign

The chamber’s strategy was outlined in an Aug. 5, 2010, memo, previously reported by the AJC, that sought to win over Perdue, who remained skeptical of the commission’s findings.

“The media and rogue board members are annoying and distracting at best, but what will really make us dead in the water is if (the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement) and the Gov discredit and/or not accept. the report,” the memo, drafted by Renay Blumenthal, a key aide to Williams at the chamber, said.

Blumenthal went on to to say that Perdue accepting the report allows “a graceful exit strategy quickly for both the Gov and Hall” and gives Hall talking points. Finally, Blumenthal noted their team should try to “finesse this thru” two seemingly “sympathetic” Perdue aides.

In an email to the AJC Friday, Blumenthal said, “I was focused administratively on helping the Blue Ribbon Commission meet its deadline and complete a report that would prompt further action by relevant state and local parties.”

Wilson, the task force investigator, was less critical of Blumenthal, than he was her boss. “Who was it trying to push the blue ribbon report through the governor’s office? It was the head of the chamber,” Wilson said in a recent interview. “It’s clear that Sam runs the chamber. Ms. Blumenthal works for him.”

“Some of the leadership of the chamber allowed the image of Atlanta and the desire to protect that image to overshadow good judgement and what was in the best interest in the long run for our city and our children,” Wilson continued. “If that falls on the guy at the top, Sam Williams, then so be it.”

After the commission’s report was released, the chamber and commission members stepped up pressure on the press to back off and accept the findings, said Julia Wallace, then-editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For a lot of folks in the business community, they did not want to look under the rock,” said Wallace, who was confronted around that time by an angry Williams at a movie theater.

The chamber, Wallace said, sent its members copies of a New York Times article that was sympathetic to Hall (“Throughout the crisis, Dr. Hall has responded with a cool professionalism,” was one description) and condescending toward her critics (“But local news organizations seemed unable to digest the investigation findings,” the article said).

Still, Perdue called for a task force to complete a full investigation into the testing.

And while the governor’s task force geared up, the chamber, the Atlanta Education Fund and commission members aggressively sold the message supported by an in-house communications team.

In September, Rice, the GE exec, wrote a guest column in the suburban Reporter Newspapers saying it was “reprehensible that some have chosen to assail the efforts of the Blue Ribbon Commission.” He said the commission was hamstrung by the lack of subpoena power, decried unfair media reporting and blasted the “mindless swirl of allegations that the BRC was somehow compromised.”

On Sept. 20, 2010, a month after Perdue’s decision to convene a task force, Price gave much the same message to the Rotary Club of Atlanta, according to prepared remarks which were in the task force’s files. Price used the same “mindless swirl of allegations” line and then went on to tick off the strong points of the commission — independence, nationally known firms, KPMG digging into 50,000 emails — even though he privately thought otherwise on those fronts.

Price said there was “no evidence of a district-wide or centrally coordinated effort to manipulate” test scores and several times bashed a “media frenzy.”

“How does the ongoing media frenzy help the brand of Atlanta — and the reputation of our institutions of public education?” Price said, wrapping up his speech, according to the document.

Price told the AJC he wasn’t necessarily defending the commission, he was trying to keep business leaders from withdrawing their support of Atlanta schools.

“I was concerned that we would be in a situation where business people are dropping like flies,” said Price, who has volunteered for several other education initiatives and whose children attend public school. “We were trying to hold that glue together. It was saying ‘Don’t quit.’”

Price said the commission members worked with “good intentions and integrity” and “were very supportive of what the governor did.”

City’s brand takes a hit

But ultimately, Atlanta’s brand took a hit in July 2011, when the governor’s task force released a scathing report and again last month with the indictments of Hall and other APS educators.

In the spring of 2011, task force investigators interviewed Williams for about 75 minutes in conference room at the Metro Chamber’s offices at Centennial Olympic Park. They said there was a moment when Williams, who in 2011 earned $778,000 for his work at the chamber, made a statement they believed indicated his true feelings.

During the interview, investigator Hyde told Williams he was worried that the explosive findings of the task force would send teachers into fistfights. “It’s going to be awful,” Hyde said.

“Let me tell you another thing that’s going to be awful,” Williams cut in, according to a recording of the interview.

Attorney Jim Hollis, an investigator who was also present at the interview, later recalled he thought Williams was taking an opportunity to say it was awful that students, many of them poor, were robbed of their educations.

Williams continued, “I already talked to the Harry Norman real estate president, there was a school district that was really prestigious and housing prices were up. Those parents are trying to get out of the district as fast as they can.” He noted applications were up 20 percent at the private Westminster Schools, “mainly people trying to get out of APS.”

When asked if the chamber’s primary worry was protecting property values, Williams said in his statement to the AJC, “Absolutely not.”

“We were concerned about the impact on the children and the integrity of our schools,” he said.

Bowers, who headed the task force, said he remains surprised by the ardent and unyielding support of Hall.

“She had a lot of backers in the business community until the very end,” said Bowers. “What I never understood was that anyone with the slightest understanding of statistics didn’t know something was wrong in APS after the release of the right-to-wrong erasures in 2009. We’re not talking about dumb people. These are smart people who run high-powered businesses. They read numbers all the time.”

He said that some business leaders connected with the chamber and on the commission “weren’t real happy that we were talking to them or what we were doing.

“They wished it would go away.”


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