A former Wichita school administrator was among three top former Atlanta school administrators given maximum 20-year sentences Tuesday in a school cheating case.
Judge Jerry Baxter gave one final warning to educators Monday that they would face stiff punishment unless they admitted to guilt and waived their right to appeal. He delivered on that promise Tuesday, doling out punishments to administrators Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts that elicited gasps and sobs from spectators in the courtroom.
Cotman, a former upper-level administrator for Wichita schools, and the others will serve seven years in prison and 13 years on probation, pay fines of $25,000 each and do 2,000 hours of community service.
“Everyone starts crying about these educators. There were thousands of children harmed in this thing. This is not a victimless crime,” Baxter said.
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A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators from the 50,000-student Atlanta school system fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.
Two of the 10 convicted educators, Donald Bullock and Pamela Cleveland, chose to admit guilt and waive the right to appeal. They did not receive prison time. An 11th convicted educator, Shani Robinson, recently had a baby and is due in court for sentencing in August.
Five lower-ranking educators – principals, teachers and testing coordinators – received sentences of up to five years with at least one year in prison and fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. All the defendants were granted first-offender status, meaning their records would be wiped clean after they served their time.
Baxter granted the educators bond while they evaluate whether to appeal the ruling, and several indicated they will do so.
A jury of six men and six women on April 1 convicted 11 of the 12 of racketeering in the landmark cheating case. Retired special education teacher Dessa Curb was acquitted.
The guilty Atlanta educators face unprecedented prison sentences because of the RICO charges against them. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was initially used by prosecutors to put away gangsters involved in organized crimes such as extortion and murder. Here, it is being applied to educators conspiring to inflate student scores on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test to keep jobs and earn bonuses.
Cotman, the former Wichita administrator, 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 Atlanta, she had oversight of 21 schools.
Contributing: Eagle staff