Cheating scandal in Atlanta has Wichita ties

10/31/2011 12:00 AM

10/31/2011 6:09 AM

A key figure in the largest academic cheating scandal in U.S. history is from Wichita and served as an upper-level administrator here.

Tamara Cotman supervised about 25 Atlanta elementary and middle schools before being put on administrative leave this year after an investigation showed widespread cheating by nearly 180 teachers and principals at 44 Atlanta public schools.

Cotman moved to Atlanta in 2004 from Wichita, where she served three years as assistant superintendent for elementary schools under former superintendent Winston Brooks.

Before that, Cotman — who grew up in Wichita and graduated from Southeast High School — was a fifth-grade teacher at Cloud Elementary and principal at Park Elementary in Wichita.

A report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released in July revealed widespread cheating in almost half of Atlanta's 100 public schools. Investigators said educators gave answers to students or erased and corrected mistakes on answer sheets after students had turned them in.

Teachers who tried to report the cheating were retaliated against and punished, creating a culture of "fear and intimidation" in the district, investigators found.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Cotman, a regional superintendent, allegedly held a meeting last year where she told a dozen principals to pen "go to hell" memos to GBI agents, who at the time were interviewing employees across the district about cheating.

Criminal investigations into the allegations are under way, and last week the Georgia Professional Standards Commission voted to revoke the teaching licenses of eight teachers and three administrators.

It is unclear whether Cotman's license was revoked. The commission did not release the names of the educators sanctioned, noting they have 30 days to appeal.

Cotman repeatedly has declined requests for interviews, but her lawyer told an Atlanta television station last month that she and other aides to former superintendent Beverly Hall had no role in the scandal.

"They still affirm that they did nothing wrong, had no knowledge of anything being done wrong," said George Lawson, who is representing Cotman and three other administrators.

Sheril Logan, a Wichita school board member who worked with Cotman as an assistant superintendent, said she has been following the story in Atlanta and doesn't believe Cotman could have been involved.

"I saw her work with people, and what I'm reading in the news doesn't jibe at all with what I know of Tamara," Logan said. "It just doesn't make sense to me, to the Tamara that I know."

Logan was assistant superintendent for Wichita middle schools when Cotman supervised elementary schools. During their tenure the women dealt with a cheating scandal at Ingalls Elementary, where an investigation found that time limits were ignored and questions read aloud during a standardized test.

"That was an isolated incident, and we dealt with it swiftly," Logan said.

She said she had spoken with Cotman "a couple times" since the allegations of cheating came to light, but would not say what they talked about.

"There's a second side to every story," Logan said. "I have dealt with enough things in my career, and I know that there's always more to a situation than what you read in the paper."

The testing problems in Atlanta schools first came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable. The state released audits of test results after the newspaper published its analysis.

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