By John Schaffner

No Buckhead schools appeared on the state’s list of Atlanta schools facing strong suspicions of possible cheating on high-profile state tests, a school board member told residents recently.

In response to state claims raising suspicions of possible cheating at about two-thirds of the city’s elementary and middle schools, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods earlier this month voted to urge the Atlanta school board to hire independent auditors to investigate the allegations. A week later, on Feb. 18, the Atlanta school board did just that and initiated plans for an independent investigation.

The Atlanta Education Fund, a not-for-profit organization, will choose the outside investigator to perform the audit and will pay for the investigation. The investigation will center on schools listed by state officials as being of “severe” or “moderate” concern for cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly Hall welcomed the board’s decision to use an outside investigator.

New Dist. 4 APS board member Nancy Meister told the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods on Feb. 11 that no Buckhead school appeared in the “serious” or “moderate” concerns categories. The list did include Garden Hills Elementary School as a school of “minimum concern” for 10 percent of its classes.

The state report centered on a review of erasure marks on CRCT answer sheets. The tests, taken last spring, helped determine whether schools met federal benchmarks.

The state said it had “moderate concerns” if 11 percent to 24 percent of a school’s classrooms exhibited suspicious erasures on student CRCTs. “Severe” schools had suspicious erasures of 25 percent or more of classrooms, with some stretching beyond 75 percent.

Atlanta had more schools flagged than any other system statewide and also had the worst suspected offenders. In one school, almost 90 percent of the classrooms were scrutinized.

At the Feb. 11 council of neighborhoods meeting, the message delivered to Meister was that Buckhead residents expect excellence in Atlanta’s public schools, considering the superintendent’s pay and the fact the system has one of the highest annual per pupil expenditures in the nation, said council education committee chairman Glen Delk, who represents the historic Brookhaven neighborhood.

During the meeting, Meister reported “a piece of land has been identified” for building a new high school in Buckhead, but said she could not say where it is located. “Not even my husband knows,” she said

She said has been told the new high school will require about 30 acres of land, for the school facility, sports fields, parking and other uses. The present North Atlanta High has 1,114 students and is located on just 17 acres on Northside Drive north of West Wesley.

The North Atlanta High facility is to be turned into a second Buckhead middle school to alleviate overcrowding at Sutton Middle School. Sutton is the only middle school in Buckhead that accepts students from all six Buckhead elementary schools – E. Rivers, Garden Hills, Bolton Academy, Morris Brandon, Jackson and Sarah Smith.

Sutton Middle has a planned capacity of 1,040. That was exceeded this year with an enrollment of approximately 1,052. Next school year it is expected to climb to 1,169 students and to 1,340 in the 2011-2012 school year. “We are fortunate our school enrollments are growing,” she added.

Meister told the BCN meeting that there is discussion of splitting students between Sutton and the new middle school by classes rather than districting by where they live in Buckhead.

She said there are no potential new elementary schools planned at this time. Three elementary schools have been expanded recently, at a total cost of about $30 million.