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Trial could be a preview of future Atlanta schools cheating cases

By Mark Niesse - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The first trial arising from accusations that Atlanta educators cheated on standardized tests began Monday with a judge asking potential jurors to help bring closure.

“This is important business. It’s so important to our community that somehow we move forward and put this all in the rear-view mirror,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter told prospective jurors.

Tamara Cotman, a former regional superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools, faces a single count of trying to influence a witness. Prosecutors claim Cotman intimidated and harassed an elementary school principal to hinder the cheating investigation.

Cotman is one of 35 former school system employees criminally charged in the cheating case. She’s going first because her attorney demanded a speedy trial.

Cotman’s trial will likely include much of the same evidence that will later be used against other educators, and their defense attorneys will be watching closely.

“It’s almost like a preview for the big one — same testimony, same witnesses,” said Hurl Taylor, who represents former Usher Elementary School testing coordinator Donald Bullock. “It’s a little unusual to have a big trial pending and a mini-trial like this beforehand.”

The 250-person jury pool filled out questionnaires Monday, and a 12-person jury is planned to be seated by the end of the week.

Opening statements are scheduled for next Monday in the trial that’s expected to last a month.

Even though most potential jurors have heard accusations that teachers inflated student scores on standardized tests, Baxter told the jury to presume that Cotman is innocent and to avoid reading news reports about the case.

Prosecutors have said in court filings that Cotman convened a meeting in late 2010 of a dozen principals whose schools had suspiciously high test scores.

Cotman passed out sheets from a memo pad with the heading “Go To Hell,” and she instructed the principals to give the memos to Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents who would be visiting their schools and to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had been writing about the suspicious test scores, according to court filings.

The Atlanta Board of Education found out about the meeting through an anonymous letter, which prosecutors allege Cotman believed former Scott Elementary Principal Jimmye Hawkins was responsible for.

Prosecutors say Cotman then instituted a campaign of harassment against Hawkins and eventually transferred her out of her job.

Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, has said he’s confident she will be acquitted. Davis didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comment Monday.

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