Atlanta Public Schools District 4 Board of Education candidates Meister and Bowman answer APN’s questions on the “Gang of Five” and charter schools

September 30, 2013

Atlanta Progressive News reported that District 4 seat Board of Education candidates Nancy Meister and Taryn Bowman had submitted answers to questionnaires on their views on the “Gang of Five” controversy and on charter schools.

On the “Gang of Five” issue, Bowman stated,

We have to remember that the controversy around board leadership and the rule change led to accreditation probation for APS high schools.  I would not support any decision that would jeopardize the education of our students.

And Meister stated,

I was on the Board during this time period and voted for the leadership change…. I felt it was in the best interest of our district to ascertain the truth of what happened. [APN comment – Meister likely referring to “what happened” in connection with the APS cheating scandal…]

In response a number question on their support for charter schools, the answers were similar,

Bowman – …Charter schools provide school communities with an opportunity to test unconventional practices that, if proven successful, can be implemented at traditional schools. However, we must be very careful in how we reallocate public money and manage charter schools.  It’s important that we keep students first and remember that charter schools are public schools funded by tax dollars… 

Meister –  I believe charter schools are an important part of our education system.  They allow for innovative educational models to be implemented and give more access and choices to the children of our district.

 In addition, the candidates responded to questions regarding their concerns with charters schools, the number of charter schools in the district and under what circumstances they would vote against charters schools.

If charter schools are important to your decision on who you will vote for in the upcoming election, please read the entire article here. 

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Round-up of Atlanta Public Schools headlines from this past week

September 28, 2013

Upcoming BOE Candidate or Other APS Events

  • Historic South Atlanta Forum – October 7, 7 p.m. – 87 Thayer Ave SE Atlanta, Ga 30315
  • Collier Heights Neighborhood Association Forum – Oct. 8, 6:30 p.m. – Berean Seventh Day Adventist
  • KIPP Forum (in conjunction with other charter schools) – Oct. 15, 6:30 p.m. (KIPP Collegiate)
  • Districts 1, 2 and at-large 7 – Tuesday, October 22, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. – 100 Black Men of Atlanta, Inc. – Ebenezer Baptist Church, 101 Jackson Street, Atlanta GA 30312
  • Midtown Neighbors’ Association – Oct. 23, 6:30 – The Nook
  • Districts 3, 4, and at-large 8 – Wednesday, October 23, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. – 100 Black Men of Atlanta, Inc. – The Temple, 1589 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, GA 30309
  • Districts 5, 6, and at-large 9 – Thursday, October 24, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. – 100 Black Men of Atlanta, Inc. – Cascade United Methodist Church, 3144 Cascade Rd SW, Atlanta, GA 30311 

Board of Education Candidates & Forums

GA Supreme Court Ruling on APS Charter School Funding

NAHS Cheating & Discrimination Case

Other Atlanta Public School News

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Recap of League of Women Voters At Large-9 candidate forum

September 27, 2013

On Wednesday, the League of Women Voters held a candidate forum for all the At Large seats for the Board of Education. The following is a recap of the Q&A for the At Large 9 seat, which includes attorney and former teacher Jason Esteves, education consultant and former teacher Dr. Lori James and former East Point City council member Eddie Lee Brewster.

The recap is fairly comprehensive and sets the baseline for the candidates positions on issues in this race. Future recaps will simply add to this baseline level with answers to new questions or changes in candidates positions on issues.

The following is a summary of the opening statements, Q&A and their closing statements. The answers are in the order the candidates presented the information.

Opening Statements

Brewster – I am a politician. I am running for the school board because I believe that one person can make a difference as a policy maker….my theme is – let teachers teach. What does that mean? Teachers are on the front line of education….Teachers are being maligned, they are being attacked and they are being accused for failures that they are not responsible for. …I think from my experience and my background as a parent and PTA leader and an elected official, I can make a difference in setting this Board straight.

Esteves – I am a former public school teacher and I am an attorney – and as an attorney I am often tasked with at looking at big issues and figuring out what is missing and how we can solve it… we do not have a public education system that matches the greatness of our city. And everyone in this room knows we cannot have a world-class city if we are only graduating 51% of our kids and only 38% of our African-American men…We have the opportunity to change that with this election…

James – My career of choice has been education for the past 30 years. I have taught general education students, I have taught the most severe and profound students with special needs and I have taught students in between. I have been an administrator for several years…Currently I am an educational consultant … providing professional development and compliance guidance to different schools.

Question 1 – What are the most significant challenges to quality public education in the Atlanta Public School system? List 3 and explain how you will address these challenges.

Brewster – I think we need to empower teachers to be teachers…Two, there is enough money in APS to pay teachers a good salary, there is enough money to take care of our bus drivers and food service people… But there is too much money for bureaucracy and top-level administrators.

Esteves – First…we need a superintendent and a school board that will focus on the schools that need to improve. Second is the budget. We have teachers…that have not received a bonus or a raise in five years. And the last thing is that we need a school board and a superintendent that are going to be engaged in the community and empower our communities, our teachers and our principals.

James – The first challenge is that we are not providing appropriate and effective instruction for all of our students. …The second challenge is that we are not meeting the needs of all of our students. …The third challenge is to use the funds for the purposes they were set for.

Question 2 – What do you believe the top strategic priorities should be for the school board over the next four years? List three and explain why.

Esteves – The first and foremost is hiring a superintendent that will change our school system. We need a superintendent that will empower our teachers and empower our principals to do what they do best, which is to teach our kids. We need to tackle …our budget issues and tackle our pension problems…And we need to focus on transparency. I think that the school board and the superintendent really have to focus on giving everyone in the community confidence that this school system is being run the way it should be.

James – First priority is to hire the absolutely best superintendent available for our school system, but also monitoring observable objectives and goals are set for that superintendent. …The second priority is reviewing and rewriting policy….The third is to provide appropriate professional development.

Brewster – First I would reduce operating costs. From that I would work on changing the culture of the schools. …If you are in the Atlanta Public Schools, all schools should be equal….And the third, I would work to develop policy that empowers teachers. My whole theme is let teachers teach.

Question 3 – What can the school board do to ensure that teachers are truly teaching and not teaching to standardized tests? 

James – …we have administrators in each school building who know how to monitor what is going on in the classroom, who know how to appropriately evaluate teachers and who are not administrators who sit behind a desk every day and have no clue what is going on in the classroom….since we can’t micromanage these schools, we have to trust the people who we put in place are doing it, and we do that by checks and balances of them.

Brewster – I think that is what got us in trouble with the cheating scandal because we put too much emphasis on testing and teaching to a test… I think we need to get back to the old-fashioned matter of the ‘three R’s’. …we have to adhere to certain national standards… and I am big supporter of Common Core, we cannot allow our students to be passed from grade to grade and some students … can pass a test but they do not know the subject matter. So we need to change that whole culture.

Esteves – The main way to do it is by stop focusing on one test…What we need to focus on is how kids are progressing throughout the year. …So what we do is change our assessment. If you have a teacher… with kids at a third grade level and …at the end of the year has kids reading at a fourth grade level, that teacher did a good job. If a teacher starts the third grade and the kids are reading at a first grade level, and at the end of the year the kids are reading at a third grade level, today that teacher would be seen as failing. But that teacher improved her kid’s scores by two years – we need to be rewarding those teachers and making sure that they get recognized.

Question 4 – APS has a budget of $600 million. Explain how your experience and skills will positively impact the school budget process.

Brewster – I have better experience with this as a city councilman in metro Atlanta – I was chairman of the budget committee in East Point as a freshman city councilman…. I know how to ask the right questions of department heads so that we do not have a lot of flux in our budget. We have enough money in Atlanta to do what we need to do in our school system. …I would have my focus on directing money for instruction, teacher salaries and professional advancement and training. …If we cut some of the top-heavy administrators out and redirect that money into our schools, we can have a good school system.

Esteves – Whether in my experience as a teacher or an attorney, I have been managing and working with budgets for a long time. And what we need is somebody who is going to ask tough questions and make sure those questions are being answered. …to make sure that when they ask those questions, that the superintendent and the school board are following through on recommendations made… Because if we can solve this budget issue, we can make sure teachers get paid, we can make sure resources are going back to the classroom and make sure our kids are getting the resources they need to succeed.

James – …I have had to sit through Atlanta Public School budgets. I have to utilize three budgets at one time to make sure that all of the money was pushed down to the school level and none of the money was used for administrative activities. … I have been there and I have helped solve problems that deal with budgetary items. And I do not have to start by figuring out where some of the problems are, because I know where they are…

Closing Statements

Brewster – The main reason to vote for me is I am not new – I am not a “Johnny Come Lately”. I have been advocating for public education in Atlanta for the past 30 years….I am running not to just have a position, I am running because I believe I have the experience and the background to get on board to do things that can really help to improve our children. …our kids are failing not because they are not capable, but because we have adults who are playing games with each other and our kids are failing… I will not go along to get along….

Esteves – We have the opportunity to do something big in this system and we cannot let this opportunity to go to waste. Whether it is hiring a new superintendent, fixing our budget issues or making sure we have a school board that honest, ethical and transparent. …We don’t need a board member who is just doing it for politics – we can’t afford that. We cannot afford [to have the school system] fail our kids any longer. We do not need a school board member that does not have enough faith in the system to send their own child to an APS school…What we need is experience, vision and leadership because our kids need us to make sure they have a future for success.

James – I am running for this position … because I have the audacity and the courage to believe that I can make a difference. There are students in our District who are crying out for help and they need someone on the school board who knows what they are going through – whose been there, whose seen it and who continues to work in it to this day… I want all of the children in APS to have the education that they deserve – a first class education that is second to none. Our dropout rate is abysmal. We have students that leave APS, whether they graduate or not, who cannot read…I stayed with APS for 27 years trying to make a difference. Now you have to beg good teachers to come and work in APS, and as soon as they come, they run out the door.

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Board of Education At Large 8 candidate Dave Walker – “I am the agitator here. Agitators clean things.”

September 26, 2013

Last night the League of Women Voters held a candidate forum for all the candidates in the At Large 7, 8 and 9 seats. I will provide a full recap of the event in later post.

However, it was significant that community activist and candidate for the At Large 8 seat Dave Walker made an appearance and made the following opening statement,

I am the agitator here. Agitators clean things…I have, witnessed the Atlanta School Board for 35 years and they have been failures ever since. Part of them can’t spell CRCT. And what do we have? The biggest scandal in education in the history of the country.

Why would any citizen send the same people back with the same result? That is the definition of insanity. Don’t do that! Send the protestor – me. Send the agitator – me. You have a washing machine at home – an old one? It agitates. It cleans. Don’t send these people back. I am the protestor. I am now leaving the building. [Audience laughter].

And the got up and left the building.

To my knowledge, this was the first candidate forum Walker has attended. Earlier in the campaign, he turned down an invitation and said,

Everyone in Atlanta, who needs to know me, knows me and understands what I believe in. … If they don’t know me now, then I don’t need them to know me.

His views on other issues that the new Board of Education will face are essentially unknown.

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Time to address some misconceptions associated with the charter school legal victory

September 25, 2013

This past Monday, the GA Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion (here) that upheld the lower court’s ruling that the Atlanta Public Schools could not deduct a portion of the unfunded pension liability from the local revenues due to the charter schools. As I reviewed the reporting and the legal briefs on the matter, there appear to be a number of misconceptions that have entered the public domain.

The following is an attempt to address each one that I have found so far.

Issue 1 – Starting at the top is the statement by Superintendent Davis, who consistently claims that the difference in the funding per student between charter schools and traditional schools is in favor of the charter schools. In an AJC article, Davis is quoted as saying,

“We are disappointed in the decision because it perpetuates a funding inequity to the detriment of traditional school students,” said Superintendent Erroll Davis. “Atlanta Public Schools will continue to pursue other options to resolve this growing disparity in funding for our school district.”

This is the same argument he made in August when he recommended to the BoE that no additional charters be granted until the pension liability issue was resolved as the payments had a disproportionate impact on traditional school student funding. At the time Davis made the recommendation, I was simply dumbfounded since the contention was simply not supported by the facts. However, after reading the legal briefs submitted to the GA Supreme Court by APS, I now understand why Davis said what he did – even though it requires a substantial leap of logic to get there.

Let’s go to the data first and follow the numbers on per student spending (PSS). The following chart is based on the FY14 budget that was adopted and student enrollment are based on the QBE reports submitted to the State this past April. Click chart to enlarge.

Per Student Spending 092513 v1

As shown in the chart, the PSS on the traditional school student is $12,974 versus the $10,013 spent per charter student, or a difference of $2,961 in favor of the traditional school student. It is important to note that the numbers used are before the current $1,071 PSS for the unfunded pension liability payment. In addition, the comparison is made prior to the addition of the PSS for Transportation and Nutrition as the charter schools are able to apply separately for these funds as well. In addition, I have not included the spending for building construction from the SPLOST fund which is not shared with the charter schools.

Please also note that the analysis comes out in favor of the traditional school students even if the Special Revenue Fund spending is taken out the mix.

Now given the numbers, as I noted above, Davis and the attorneys representing APS in the case before the Supreme Court are asking us to make the following logical leap.

First, we must assume the disparity in the PSS funding that is already in favor of the traditional school student by $2,961 represents the status quo and we should not consider this point any further in the analysis. Now that you have performed that leap of “magical thinking”, then without any context whatsoever, we must view the PSS of $1,071 spent on the unfunded pension liability as a reduction on what could otherwise be spent on traditional schools students.

If the administration had presented their argument in a fully transparent manner, it would have been along the lines of:

Netting out the pension liability payment of $1,071, we currently spend $12,974 per traditional school student versus $10,013 per charter school student. And at the highest projected pension liability payment, the $12,974 would be reduced by an additional $561 to $12,413, resulting in a disparity in favor of the traditional student of only $2,400.

It just doesn’t sound so good that way, and that is why the information presented in court and the statements made by Davis were completely out of context and misleading as the facts did not support their contentions.

Do I need to say it once more? OK – the PSS disparity is in favor of the traditional schools students – and not in favor of the charter schools students.

Issue 2 – The following line in the GA Supreme Court opinion has received some attention, which states,

“…it is clear from a reading of the statute as a whole that the intention of the General Assembly was to fund local schools unequally with regard to local revenue.” [Emphasis in original]

In addition, the GA statutes state,

“…local revenue shall be allocated to a local charter school on the same basis as for any local school in the local school system.”

The GA Supreme Court viewed the second statement as an indication of the general intent of the of General Assembly, but also noted that the General Assembly included the express provisions in the statutes that provide a methodology for calculating and then allocating funds to start-up charter schools. These provisions, by definition, will result in an unequal allocation of local revenue.


The statute requires the inclusion of certain local revenues in the calculation and excludes other local revenues (interest, bond sinking fund, E-rate, rental receipts, etc.) that might be received by a school district. In other words, the statute does not require a school district to take the total local revenues received, divide the amount by total enrollment (as weighted by a number of other factors) and then allocate the proportionate share to the charter schools. It is very specific in regards to what is included in the formula – and therefore, by definition, the amounts allocated will be unequal on a per student spending basis.

There is no discrimination or other sinister stuff here – it is simply math at work.

Issue 3While the next issue has not been brought up in the media, the APS brief filed with the GA Supreme Court presents some interesting information. While we knew that the pension liability has been around for decades, the brief establishes the point in time when the serious underfunding became apparent.

In 1982, most of the teachers and many other employees transferred to the Teachers Retirement System (TRS). TRS required that the benefits for the employees transferred to TRS be “fully funded”. As a result, a substantial portion of the assets held by City of Atlanta General Employees’ Pension Plan (Pension Plan) were transferred to TRS and the assets remaining in the Pension Plan were substantially below the level needed to pay for the benefits due to the remaining employees. Subsequent to 1982, the legal brief states that most employees were enrolled in TRS.

While I do not believe that it was the intent of APS’s attorneys to confirm that the charter schools have never received any benefit from the payment of the “unfunded pension liability”, their arguments confirm that this is the case. In testimony given by APS CFO Burbridge in the original hearing, he differentiates the amounts paid for current employees (primarily composed of janitors) and is referred to as “normal cost” (estimated at $2-3 million annually) and the balance which is the underfunded amount due to the employees who remained part of the Pension Plan in 1982.

Notwithstanding CFO Burbridge’s argument that payment of the unfunded pension liability benefits the “fiscal health” of the system as a whole, I am still trying to understand how any charter school student has benefited in any way from the employees who were part of the City Pension Plan prior to 1982 or from the current janitors that are still part of that Pension Plan and work for APS.

This argument may be important in the future as during the initial hearing in December, APS threatened to assess an “expense” against the charters in an equal amount in the event that they lost the case – which they did.

Issue 4 – Consistently I see in print that the charter school enrollment represents approximately 10% of the total APS enrollment. Based on an analysis of the QBE records filed with the State, the total charter school enrollment in FY14 it is estimated to be approximately 8.25%. In addition, due to the difference in the composition of the students enrolled in charter schools (charters have a lower proportion of Special Education and Early Intervention Program participants), the charter schools share of funding in FY14 is approximately 7.6%. 

Also, keep the chart above handy – there is a lot of additional very interesting information there that I will report on in the near future.

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Atlanta Progressive News endorses Board of Education candidates Brenda Muhammad (I) (D-1), Nisha Simama (AL-7) and Cynthia Briscoe Brown (AL-8) [Updated]

September 24, 2013

[Update] APN added additional endorsements in a subsequent report – the information has been added to this post.]

As reported by Matthew Cardinale, Atlanta Progressive News (APN) Board of Directors issued its endorsements of candidates for the Atlanta Public School Board of Education race. APN endorsed incumbent Brenda Muhammad (D-1), film consultant Taryn Bowman (D-4), IT professional Raynard Johnson, retired teacher Anne McKenzie (D-6), private school counselor Nisha Simama (AL-7), attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown (AL-8) and quality consultant Ed Johnson (AL-9).

As with any candidate endorsement, it is always important to understand the point of view of the endorser and what criteria they used in making their selection. Per the APN corporate website,

Progressive news is news that brings us closer to universal health care, living wages, affordable housing, peace, a healthy environment, and voting systems we can trust…mainstream media presents itself as objective but is actually skewed towards promoting the corporate agenda of the ultra-wealthy. APN, on the other hand, does not pretend to be objective.

And per the article presenting the endorsements, the one criteria focused on in each candidate assessment is their position on charter schools,

A top priority in our endorsement process, then, is to identify people who will provide some counterbalance [to supporters of charter schools].

I think it is also important to note that the APN corporate website appears to accept advertising from two of the three candidates that APN endorsed.

The following are some of the key comments provided in support of the endorsements made in each race.

Brenda Muhammad (D-1) – Incumbent Brenda Muhammad is being challenged by small business owner Leslie Grant. Per the APN article,

While Muhammad may not be an ideal progressive candidate, there are several good reasons to reelect her…

She understands the dynamics of gentrification and privatization…While we are cognizant that Ms. Muhammad is tied into the power structure, and she has friendships and alliances with some of the very actors who have helped precipitate some of those very changes, we also believe that Muhammad sees both sides.

Previously, APN reported that Muhammad said she voted for every charter school proposal that has come before her – that’s scary… When asked about her previous statement regarding support for charter schools, Muhammad clarified that there had, in fact, been instances in which she had voted not to support specific charter school proposals that came before APS.

[Added] Taryn Bowman (D-4)

“As a board member, I would not approve charters that appeared to be profit-driven, with no real educational leadership base. But, most importantly, charter schools need strong fiscal management and an ability to recognize programs that are appropriate for students.  I think it’s important to look at the financial impact of the charter school on the community as well as how the charter school would compliment [sic] the programs that are already in place within the community.”

[Added] Raynard Johnson (D-5)

Neither Lawrence nor Johnson were critical of charter schools.  APN was not particularly thrilled with Johnson’s interview with APN, but we feel he has a stronger track record of community involvement, at least that APN is aware of, than Lawrence.

[Added] Anne McKenzie (D-6)

“I don’t have an objection to charter schools, but I don’t think there is a dime worth of difference in charter and public schools.  The differences might be that they [charter schools] have a full parental involvement.  In some [public] schools, they give second and third chances to students when they misbehave.  Charter schools don’t give students a chance – if they misbehave, they’re out of there,” she said.

Nisha Simama (AL-7) – Simama, a counselor at the private school Paideia, is running against current incumbent and former teacher Courtney English. Per the APN article,

Simama …is progressive; has a balanced view on charter schools; is extremely experienced in the area of educational policy; and promises to live up to a higher ethical standard that Mr. English.

Simama told APN in an interview in August 2013, “Charters are here to stay.  When I was on the Board, we approved the charter of a number of schools.  But I don’t think we need to get into thinking charter schools is the panacea to save public education… I’m not for having us taking public taxpayer money and paying for private education,” she said.

“We’ve got to be concerned about labor practices as well,” she said, noting that APS teachers work from day to night.  “There’s nothing as hard as teaching.”

Cynthia Briscoe Brown (AL-8) – Brown is running against incumbent and BoE Chairman Board Reuben McDaniel, III, attorney Tom Tidwell, real estate developer Mark Riley and concerned citizen Dave Walker. Per the APN article,

In a July 2013 interview with APN, she said, “…There are great charter schools, and there are bad charter schools, just like there are great traditional schools and there are bad traditional schools,” she said.

“I think that any school which has active involved parents will be a successful school, and while there are some advantages to the charter model–mainly that in most cases, charter schools require parental involvement–I am concerned about the tendency, particularly some of the for-profit charter schools, to skim off the active and involved parents, whose children are going to be successful anywhere, and leave the children who have no one to help them bridge the divide at their failing school,” she said.

[APN] believe[s] that the Board already has too many members who strongly support charter schools.  A top priority in our endorsement process, then, is to identify people who will provide some counterbalance. We believe Briscoe-Brown fits the bill.

[Added] Ed Johnson (AL-9)

“Kindly allow me to unequivocally say my overall position is to stop the injections of the pathogen called ‘charter schools’ into the public good called ‘public schools.’  Once stopped, my position would shift to focus on whatever amount of pathogen that was originally injected.”

In addition to the items noted above, the endorsement considerations included the candidate’s position on the “Gang of Five” issue, ethics charges and candidate responsiveness to APN requests.

Additionally, the article notes that the endorsements are made by the APN Board of Directors, but the APN website does not provide any information on who the directors of the corporation are or any information on their backgrounds. By email, I have requested this information from reporter Matthew Cardinale, who also serves as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer of the corporation, and will update the report when the information is provided. [Update – Mr. Cardinale provided the names of the Board members of APN. In addition to himself, the two other Board members are Susan Keith and Sarah Epting, who have written articles for APN in the past. See their submissions here and here.]

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Board of Education candidate Tom Tidwell (At Large 8) issues statement on the internal investigation report on alleged racial discrimination at NAHS

September 23, 2013

Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education candidate and attorney Tom Tidwell (At Large 8 seat) has issued a statement on the investigative report issued by the Atlanta Public School Internal Compliance department regarding allegations of racial discrimination and grading improprieties at the North Atlanta High School. As reported here, here and here, the investigation found no evidence supporting the allegations.

Tidwell’s statement in full is as follows,

Last year’s debacle at NAHS, which culminated in the recently released report finding no systemic discrimination, confirms that Reuben McDaniel completely overreacted and as a result caused a huge disruption to the very students that he supposedly cares about.

It is very disappointing in its own right, but particularly so coming on the heels of the in-fighting which caused APS to be put on probation and almost lose its accreditation.

This highlights the desperate need we have for change, for a fresh start, to elect board members who will put their egos and personal agendas aside and actually work for the children.

Tidwell, along with attorney Cynthia Briscoe Brown, real estate developer Mark Riley and concerned citizen Dave Walker are challenging the current incumbent and Chairman of the Board Reuben McDaniel, III for the At Large 8 seat.

In addition, the Atlanta Public Schools issued a statement after the Report was released last Friday. The statement as reported here, is as follows,

Atlanta Public Schools has received the independent auditor’s investigative summary report on allegations of racial discrimination and grading improprieties at North Atlanta High School.  The nature of the complaints substantiated the need to initiate this investigation. The report indicates that no laws were broken. However, it raised issues that should have been addressed. Now in place is a new principal, who has already begun to work on the issues, and we are confident that we can all return to the business of educating children.

The full internal investigation report can be found here.

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