Atlanta schools regional director Tamara Cotman put principals in a tough spot during investigations into widespread cheating: They could cooperate, or they could listen to her and tell investigators to “go to hell,” according to testimony in Cotman’s trial Thursday.
Cotman is accused of interfering with state investigators as evidence mounted that educators had erased incorrect answers on standardized tests.
Cotman, who oversaw 21 elementary and middle schools, is the first of 35 defendants to go on trial in the cheating case. She’s charged with influencing a witness by allegedly retaliating against an ex-principal who told authorities about a meeting in which Cotman handed out notes labeled “go to hell.”
Prosecutors have portrayed Cotman as a leader in a public education system that sought to make the grade no matter what it took, including cheating. But witnesses questioned by Cotman’s attorney have said she didn’t cheat.
“I thought we were being coached into an adversarial situation with the GBI,” said Caitlin Sims, who was the principal at Grove Park Elementary under Cotman, as she teared up on the witness stand. “It seemed that the district did not have a genuine interest in coming to a resolution about it. If something had happened on my watch at my school, I wanted to know the truth.”
Sims was one of 10 principals who attended the meeting on Nov. 17, 2010, when witnesses said Cotman asked those in the room to write the names of those they wanted to go to hell: the GBI, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, parents or others.
Cotman opened the meeting with a lengthy diatribe expressing her disgust with the GBI and saying agents had been deceitful and used tricks to get teachers to talk, Sims said. She said Cotman then asked the principals to write the memo to the GBI and investigators.
“It felt like a loyalty test to me,” Sims said. “It was horrific. It was traumatic. … I recall thinking, could this really be happening?”
The cheating inquiry, carried out by special investigators and the GBI, concluded in July 2011 that 185 educators participated in cheating on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
Cotman resisted accusations of cheating even after articles by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a state-run erasure analysis showed highly suspicious improvements on test results, said Sims, who is now the principal at Parkside Elementary.
Former Harper-Archer Middle School Principal Allison Marks said Cotman pitched the “go to hell” activity as a stress-relief exercise, but instead she put the principals in a tense and uncomfortable situation.
“It was probably largely conflicting with what was being asked at the time” by the GBI, Marks said. “You could feel it, it was tight, it was hard to breathe.”
Marks said Cotman gave her the insurmountable task of greatly improving standardized test scores within a few months. After about two months on the job, Marks said Cotman demanded improvements.
“To threaten me with punitive measures and not giving me time to do that, I don’t think that’s fair,” said Marks, who was later moved by Cotman’s successor to a teaching job at North Atlanta High School.
A principal at Harper-Archer before Marks, Michael Milstead, said he knew something was wrong with standardized test scores soon after he arrived at the school in 2006. He couldn’t explain how students would do so poorly in sixth grade after they had excelled on their CRCT evaluations the previous year in elementary schools.
When Milstead suggested he wanted to work more closely with the elementary schools, Cotman resisted, he said.
“Ms. Cotman made a statement to me, and she said, ‘Your colleagues didn’t really like what you said in the main meeting,’ and she told me I need to do something about that,” Milstead said. “I asked her what that meant, and I don’t think she replied.”