Top official convicted in APS cheating trial free to return to schools

The highest ranking Atlanta Public Schools officials convicted in a districtwide cheating scandal have been sanctioned by the state agency that regulates educator licenses, but one is still eligible to return to a top post in any Georgia school district.

Former regional executive directors Tamara Cotman, Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams were among 11 Atlanta educators convicted in 2015 on criminal charges of participating in a conspiracy to cheat on state tests.

Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was indicted but died of cancer before she could go to trial.

Last month, Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission issued its own discipline for the three directors. The commission revoked Cotman’s and Pitts’ licenses and issued a two-year, retroactive suspension for Davis-Williams’ educational leadership license.

The retroactive suspension, which was post-dated to end in 2015, means Davis-Williams is now eligible to work in any school district leadership position, including as a superintendent. State records do not indicate that she worked in a Georgia public school last year; records for this year are not yet available.

The commission had initially decided to revoke Davis-Williams’ license, but a state administrative law judge said that penalty was too harsh.

In her ruling, Judge Stephanie Howells cited Davis-Williams’ “alleged indirect involvement” in the cheating.

Howells also wrote that other people more at fault received milder sanctions in exchange for taking plea deals and cited “the uncontroverted evidence of Williams’ professionalism, good reputation and continued support from educators and community members.”

The lawyer who represented Davis-Williams during the administrative hearing did not respond to messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday.

Davis-Williams, Cotman and Pitts initially received the harshest sentences of the convicted defendants — including seven years in prison — though their sentences were later reduced. They have maintained their innocence and are free on bond pending appeals of their convictions.

During sentencing, Judge Jerry Baxter criticized Davis-Williams, saying the regional directors were “at the very top. Everybody in the education system at APS knew cheating was going on. She’s been convicted and she is at the top of the food chain. Your client ran numerous fine educators out, removed them, fired them. She was responsible.”

Five of the other convicted Atlanta educators also have valid educator licenses. Three had their educator licenses revoked.

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