Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall spoke Wednesday for the first time in her defense of criminal charges, but despite her testimony a judge denied her motion to throw out statements she’d previously given to special investigators.
Hall took the witness stand for more than two hours and confidently and matter-of-factly answered questions posed by her attorney. She never appeared flustered during a sometimes rigorous cross-examination.
Hall said she had nothing to hide when she sat for interviews with the governor’s special investigators looking into the test-cheating scandal and that she never directed a school employee to correct wrong answers on standardized tests. She said she became aware that teachers alleged they felt pressure from the administration to cheat only when the investigators told her about it.
Hall is among 34 former APS administrators and educators charged with conspiring to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests so they could receive bonus pay and so schools could meet academic standards. Hall also is charged with theft by taking, giving a false statement under oath, and submitting a false document in 2009 when she turned in her superintendent’s test certification to the state Board of Education.
The 90-page indictment accuses Hall of overseeing an administration that “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.” She protected and rewarded those who achieved target test scores through cheating, ignored suspicious score gains at Atlanta schools, and then worked with others to interfere with or obstruct investigations into the scandal, the indictment alleges.
The 67-year-old Hall, who is battling breast cancer, was named national superintendent of the year in 2009. She served a dozen years overseeing a school system with 47,000 students and 6,000 employees. She now faces the prospect of prison time if convicted during a lengthy trial scheduled to begin April 21.
On Tuesday, her lead attorney, Richard Deane, tried to convince Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter that statements Hall gave to special investigators had been coerced because she was under the threat of losing her job if she did not cooperate. For this reason, prosecutors should not be allowed to use the statements against Hall or in their investigation, Deane said.
Hall testified that a series of memos, some issued by her beginning in August 2010, instructed all APS employees to cooperate with investigations into test cheating. Employees were told that those who refused to cooperate would be charged with insubordination and face discipline, up to and including termination. Those memos also applied to her, Hall testified.
“There was no question in my mind, given the nature of this investigation, if I failed to cooperate in any way the (school) board would exercise its right to terminate me,” she testified.
Ultimately, Baxter ruled against Hall’s motion to throw out her statements.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Quinn said the prosecution can use those statements when prosecuting Hall for allegedly making a false statement under oath and when trying to prove its racketeering conspiracy case.
Hall was initially interviewed by the governor’s special investigators on Aug. 30, 2010, and later sat for a lengthy interview on May 18, 2011. During the latter interview, the indictment says, Hall gave a false statement under oath when she said she never received complaints about Parks Middle School after Christopher Waller became principal and never met with an investigator, Reginald Dukes, who looked into complaints about Waller.
On Tuesday, Hall responded to that accusation. “I have no recollection,” Hall said of a possible meeting with Dukes. “I had none then. I have none now.”
When pressed by Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker, Hall answered, “I guess they say anything’s possible.” She said she had asked investigators to bring Dukes before her so she could take a look at him and see if that refreshed her memory.
The test-cheating scandal took its toll and the governor’s investigation seemed “never ending,” she testified.
“Clearly, it was extremely significant, having spent close to 40 years in the profession,” Hall said. “To have this happen right at the end of your tenure and also, given the nature of the allegations, it was very serious.”
Rucker then asked Hall if she accepted responsibility for what had occurred.
“In the role of superintendent, or chief administrative officer, the … buck stops with me,” Hall answered.
Rucker also asked Hall whether she would have talked to the special investigators even if there had been no directive telling APS employees to cooperate.
“I would have talked to the special investigators because it was just as much my desire to find out what was going on as anybody else’s,” she replied.
“You wanted to know if educators were cheating our babies?” Rucker asked.
“That is correct,” Hall said.
Baxter would later say he took Hall’s admission that she would have met with investigators anyway into consideration in denying the motion.
Also Wednesday, Fulton prosecutors acknowledged they are becoming financially strapped. They have been unable to pay Baxter’s court reporter for transcripts and have yet to pay the state’s testing vendor so it can write a program to retrieve data that needs to be turned over to the defense.
Lead Fulton prosecutor Fani Willis estimated her office must pay CTB/McGraw-Hill “tens of thousands” of dollars to get the testing data. She told Baxter her office may have to ask him to begin signing orders requiring the county to make payments on her office’s behalf.