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Public school puppet regime

Critics say the Metro Atlanta Chamber has controlled Atlanta schools for too long

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It was the summer of 1993 and folks had had enough. Activists, businesspeople, parents — nearly everybody who cared about the city and its beleaguered school system — were fed up with the Atlanta Board of Education.

For years, school board meetings had regularly disintegrated into shouting matches, with members bickering and slandering each other even as bus drivers went on strike, school construction projects ran months behind schedule, and one member was being prosecuted (successfully) on charges that he defrauded the system. And, in case you weren't able to attend meetings in person, the entire tawdry spectacle was broadcast, with repeats, on the system-owned WPBA-TV.

That summer, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce created EduPAC to give the business community a vehicle for recruiting and supporting board candidates. After the dust had settled on the fall elections, EduPAC had a record of 9-0: The six newcomers and three incumbents left standing had all been backed by the Chamber's political arm.

Most Atlantans would agree that there's nothing wrong with the corporate community taking an active interest in improving public schools by raising private funds, encouraging qualified board candidates, or offering support and pro-bono advice.

But nearly two decades after the Chamber first got a taste of steering a new course for the school system, some insiders believe the city's business elite has exerted too much control over the school board for too long. And now that the APS is reeling under suspicion of a system-wide standardized test cheating scandal, those insiders allege that powerful corporate players have been working behind the scenes to deflect a meaningful investigation in order to save face and protect their investment.

This time, however, it looks as if the Chamber may not get its way.

As Gov. Sonny Perdue organizes a renewed state probe into cheating and apparent irregularities in the school system's graduation rates, sources close to the action say Superintendent Beverly Hall's early retirement has already been the subject of closed-door negotiations.

For this story, CL spoke to several former school board members, as well as current members who asked not to be named because of APS policy that mandates all public statements come from the board chairman.

What emerges is a picture of a system in which the balance of power had shifted decisively over the years from an elected board to a longtime superintendent with the strong backing of the business community.

The nine-member board, meanwhile, had long been divided into two camps: a five-member majority who enjoyed Chamber counsel and support; and four outsiders who were often criticized for not being sufficiently supportive of Hall. The delicious irony, at least to some observers, is that, in an act of overreaching during last fall's city elections, the Chamber lost its dutiful board majority just when it needed it most.

When the Atlanta business community led a takeover of Grady Memorial Hospital in early 2008 — stripping the old Grady board of its authority and installing a new governing authority populated with Chamber bigwigs — it was a hard-fought and very public battle.

By contrast, the tightening of the Chamber's grip on the Atlanta Public Schools has been more gradual and less visible.

"The Chamber's involvement in the school board isn't a bad thing in itself," says state Sen. Vincent Fort. "But it's the level of control they've had. [Chamber President] Sam Williams wasn't elected by anybody, but they think they run the school system and are willing to cover up malfeasance and ineptitude in order to protect their image and their contracts with APS."

Since 1993, the Chamber has successfully lobbied for a number of amendments to the system's charter and other governance changes that have served to concentrate authority in the office of its hand-picked superintendent.

A veteran of New York and Newark schools, Beverly Hall was recruited by the Chamber in 1999, after the Atlanta system had weathered a series of lackluster superintendents and interim school chiefs. From the beginning, Hall — whose use of management-speak resembles that of a boosterish CEO — worked to overhaul the system into a more professional, businesslike operation. She demanded accountability from teachers, results from administrators and hard work from students — and didn't hesitant to push out principals who didn't seem up to the challenge. By 2001, Atlanta students had posted the first of a series of astounding score increases on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

A 2003 charter revision, authored in part by Mayor Kasim Reed when he served as a state senator, took the system's chief financial officer and general counsel from under the school board's authority and made them answerable solely to the superintendent, a move that some say further marginalized the school board. Reed recently explained that the charter change was necessary to attract and retain top superintendent candidates.

During the past decade, the APS has been awash with money: millions in private donations, including a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; about $100 million in annual revenue for construction projects from a 1 cent local option sales tax; and a general-fund budget that topped $650 million for fiscal year 2010 — about $90 million more than the Atlanta city budget.

The Atlanta Education Fund, headed by John Rice, the vice chairman of GE and a former Chamber board chairman, has funneled millions in corporate donations — including $22 million from the GE Foundation — into the school system. The Atlanta Partners For Education, a joint program of the Chamber and APS, matches businesses with local schools to provide students with mentoring, donated computers and other needs.

While the APS was being hailed as a national model for student achievement and Hall was busy collecting accolades, few critics questioned the tens of millions of dollars spent on teacher development programs. And as standardized test scores appeared to soar, there was little grumbling heard over healthy bonuses handed out to teachers, administrators and Hall herself, who collected annual bonuses averaging about $80,000 in recent years.

But now that many of the system's ballyhooed gains in test scores and graduation rates are being called into doubt, many parents and taxpayers are left wondering what they got for their money, while others would like to restore more accountability to voters.

"We believe our schools are better when they partner with the business community, but the business community should not be running the school system," said Shawna Hayes-Tavares, a mother of four APS students who spoke at a protest organized by Fort outside the Chamber headquarters last week.

The school board, which had long acted as a rubber stamp for Hall's policies, is now controlled by a five-member bloc — dubbed a "majority in exile" by one insider because it lacks the Chamber's support — that has questioned the findings of a report on cheating completed earlier this month by a Blue Ribbon Commission that was convened by Rice's Atlanta Education Fund and peopled with Chamber friends.

The Commission's report also has been openly criticized by Gov. Perdue and others for attempting to vindicate Hall and place narrow blame for cheating on only 12 out of 58 schools under suspicion by state investigators. Now that the governor has named two veteran prosecutors — including former Attorney General Mike Bowers — to delve further into the scandal, insiders say it's doubtful that Hall will be allowed to serve out her full contract, which expires next summer.

One well-placed source predicts that Hall will be allowed to announce her departure shortly after the state investigation has completed and the APS has had a chance to announce reforms, possibly within the next 60 to 90 days.

It's also a safe guess that the Chamber-backed model of superintendent-as-monarch will not be carried forward.

As one insider notes: "Dictatorships aren't all bad, but they have to be closely monitored."

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