At the time of her "crime" she had been lionized as a great educational leader who was achieving great things with respect to improving student performance. The truth was finally uncovered, not by her Board of Trustees, but rather by a relentless local news outlet. Even so, it took years to uncover the breadth of the scandal. So, where did good governance and oversight go off of the rails in this case?
If it is the purpose of a Board of Governors to be the guardian of the "ends" (that is the outcomes that a school is committed to achieve); and the role of the Head and school administration to develop the means to those ends; then how does the Board ensure that the results that they are seeing truly reflect the attainment of the mission?
First, let's agree that the Head and staff are responsible for the "how". There is nothing that destroys the Board's ability to oversee the quality of an operational initiative more thoroughly than getting its hands dirty than by determining the process by which an outcome is achieved. How can the Board hold the administration accountable for a failed policy or programme if the Head can turn to them and say "I only did what you told me to do!"?
The Board's only interest in the means by which the administration achieved its objective is to ensure that it was effective (we got there!); it was prudent (you didn't bankrupt us to reach the goal); and, that it was ethical (you didn't cheat). I think that we can assume in the Atlanta case that the third criterion was not met. I dealt with a similar situation in Quebec a number of years ago. A local independent school had been performing below expectations on its Ministry examinations. The Board, as a goal, set a target of "significant improvement" on the exam results the next year and entrusted the administration to "get the job done". The next June the school boasted a 100% success rate and the average score jumped by 15%. The end had been reached and the Board had done its job! Or had it?
While it is true that the Board set a goal, an "end" to be achieved, and while it is also true that it stood aside and let the school administration do its job, there is still one more piece to the governance puzzle. Now that the end had been reached, it was the duty of the Board to determine how it had been achieved. Upon investigation, it turned out that the approach had been neither prudent or particularly ethical! To begin with, the school had hired a number of tutors to work with those students whom they had deemed to be "at-risk". The costs were significant and unbudgeted. Secondly, on the days of the exams, a number of borderline students were "excused" from writing and marked absent, while others were allowed to take their tutors into the exam room as "scribes" and, as it turned out, in most cases it was the tutors who had done so well on the exam, not the students! In this case, while the Board was happy with the ends, it could not morally live with the means.
In other words, while the Board's concern about administrative effectiveness should be primarily focussed on the extent to which the ends were met, there must also be a direct interest in the means by which the results were achieved. It is a critically important role of the Board to ensure that those ends were reached in a prudent and ethical fashion. After all, the sub-prime lenders made a lot of money for their investors in 2007 but we all suffered from their lack of prudence and ethics in the long run!
A good mantra for any Board always has to be "if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn't!"