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Iowa Watchdog

Madison principal hired lawyer amid cheating investigation


DES MOINES – The principal of a Davenport elementary school embroiled in a cheating scandal hired a lawyer, although district leaders have publicly said they have no suspects, according to district emails.

Sara Gott, principal of Madison Elementary School, is being represented by attorneys Cathy Cartee, whose mother Patt Zamora serves on the school board, and Craig Levien. The two offered to represent her earlier this year after a student’s grandparent brought the cheating allegation to light. She has not been removed from her position and placed on leave, district officials said Friday.

Cartee said in an interview Tuesday Gott took a polygraph test at her attorneys’ advice in April and passed. The district has questioned her at least two times, if not more. Cartee was at some of the meetings, she said.

Gott, who has led Madison for two years, referred comment to Cartee.

“The principal has obtained a lawyer and the legal dance has started with our attorney,” Arthur Tate said in an April email to Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

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The school district hired the Ahlers & Cooney law firm in Des Moines and Lane & Waterman in Davenport to handle the investigation and legal issues involved, according to Dawn Saul, spokeswoman for the district. Attorney fees and the cost of the investigation were not available.

“She didn’t have access to the tests at any time,” Cartee said. “All Sara did was try to help the Davenport district find out what happened. I know it wasn’t Sara.”

The district’s investigation failed to find who tampered with the score sheets. Glass, however, said those involved will be referred to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, which conducts its own investigations. Teachers and administrators could potentially lose their license if they are charged with misconduct, Glass said in an interview with Iowa Watchdog.

Central administrators who are overseeing the investigation could also face repercussions, including losing their license, if they are found to have not thoroughly investigated the matter or fail to report any individuals involved, Glass said.

The district began an internal investigation in February after a student’s grandfather informed administrators his grandchild had been helped with the test. District officials found it wasn’t an isolated case but, instead, included all third- through fifth-graders at Madison.

Investigators discovered an unusually high number of erasures on reading and math tests but not science exams. Reading and math scores are used to judge the performance of schools under No Child Left Behind. If they fail to reach achievement targets, schools and districts face sanctions.

In most cases, the wrong answer was replaced with the correct one marked, according to Tate. District officials found the tampering increased Madison’s reading scores, for example, from 63 percent passing to 92 percent, according to emails between the district and state obtained by Iowa Watchdog.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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