An Atlanta judge on Thursday reduced the sentences of three former school administrators convicted of participating in a widespread test-cheating scandal, saying he was uncomfortable with the stiff sentences he handed down earlier this month.
In a rare move, Judge Jerry W. Baxter reduced each of the administrator’s prison terms from seven years to three, with seven years of probation instead of 13. He also reduced their fines from $25,000 to $10,000, but he maintained the requirement for 2,000 hours of community service.
The original prison term — far longer than prosecutors had sought and longer than many violent criminals serve — triggered public debate and a flood of criticism. Baxter, hinting that he might retire soon, said that he wanted to “modify the sentence so I can live with it.”
He urged the three defendants, all former high-level administrators within Atlanta Public Schools, to begin their community service now instead of waiting for their appeals to play out, a process that could take years. By doing so they could possibly earn a suspended prison sentence, he said.
“I’m not Oliver Wendell Holmes, but I do have a feel for trials and cases, and it’s my humble belief that this case is going to be affirmed,” he said. “If I am reversed and you are correct, you will still have served the community, so it’s not like you have wasted time.”
Critics had accused Baxter — who called the cheating scandal “the sickest thing that’s ever happened to this town” — of initially sentencing out of anger, doling out particularly harsh punishments to defendants who rejected his advice to admit guilt and take plea bargains.
On Thursday he seemed more weary than furious, and he made a plea on behalf of the poor children who bore the brunt of the cheating scandal when they were told they were working on grade level even though they were behind.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution uncovered the cheating scandal in 2009, and state investigators later concluded that nearly 180 educators had cheated in dozens of Atlanta public schools. High-level administrators had ignored or covered up cheating allegations since at least 2005, the investigators said.
Investigators found that a climate of fear and intimidation pervaded the district, and teachers and principals helped students get more correct answers on standardized tests largely because they were afraid for their jobs or reputation.
“There’s a lot more to this tragedy than the cheating,” Baxter said. “I mean the poverty, and the utter hopelessness in a lot of these neighborhoods. . . . Teaching in these areas — and there are fine teachers and dedicated teachers — that alone is not going to solve the problem.”
Baxter said he hopes that the cheating scandal forces Atlanta to “put a microscope” on the problems facing poor communities and “make things better for these children that didn’t ask to be born in these conditions.”
The three former administrators — Tamara Cotman, Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams — were among 11 former public school educators who were convicted April 1 of taking part in the conspiracy to falsify student scores on standardized tests.
One gave birth to a baby recently and has not been sentenced. Sentences for the others will apparently stand. Five were sentenced to either a year in prison plus four years on probation or two years in prison with three years on probation.
Two defendants chose to negotiate lighter sentences in exchange for admitting their guilt, apologizing for their actions and waiving their rights to appeal. One must serve six months of weekends in the county jail; the other has been sentenced to a year of home confinement, meaning she must stay home from dusk until dawn but is otherwise free.