Mumford Teacher Cheating Scandal Takes High Toll

By Bill Dries

Federal prosecutors tallied the toll this week in the largest teacher exam cheating scandal ever pursued by authorities in the Western District of Tennessee.

Four more guilty pleas this week in the largest teacher exam cheating scandal prosecuted in Memphis federal court brings the number of one-time teachers who pleaded guilty to 40.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The occasion was the announcement Tuesday, Aug. 19, by U.S Attorney Ed Stanton of diversion agreements with four more teachers in the two-decade long scandal and a June guilty plea and sentencing of former Hillcrest High School and Byhalia High School basketball coach James O. Sales of Memphis.

With the four diversion agreements announced Tuesday that makes a total of 40 one-time teachers who agreed to diversion including terms in which they each agreed to pay restitution to the school systems they worked for, gave up their teaching licenses and agreed to not even attempt to try to become teachers again for at least five years.

The exam cheating scandal was led by Clarence Mumford Sr., a one-time teacher and assistant principal in Memphis City Schools and other school systems in the region, who pleaded guilty last year to fraud charges. Mumford was sentenced to and is currently serving a seven-year federal prison sentence.

Sales is one of 10 basketball coaches also including Devin Rutherford, coach of the 2009 White Station High School state championship team, who pleaded guilty in the scandal and were given diversion agreements. Nine football coaches also pleaded guilty.

Thirteen of those involved in the cheating on teacher exams were convicted of felonies and 10 of the 13 are serving federal prison time.

Stanton described what Mumford coordinated and other participated in as a “tragic scam” that “cheated the honest and dedicated teachers in our communities and tragically, the parents and children who deserve qualified teachers in their classrooms.”

He noted 10 of the school districts affected by the crimes, including Memphis City Schools, had high numbers of students who weren’t proficient in basic subjects or working at their current grade level.

Prosecutors also revealed that the full extent of Mumford’s scheme in three states including Mississippi and Alabama as well as Tennessee was hidden because shortly after several of those working for him to take tests in the names of teachers were discovered by test proctors in 2009, Mumford burned several boxes of incriminating paperwork.

With the evidence prosecutors and federal and state criminal investigators gathered, they identified about 100 teacher exams taken for at least 50 teachers. Some teachers paid Mumford and those in the ring to take teachers exams for them multiple times.

Shortly before prosecutors indicted Mumford and others in 2011, they estimated Mumford was charging teachers $2,500 to $3,000 per test and Mumford was in turn paying those taking the tests for the teachers $600 to $800 per test.

In the beginning of the exam cheating in the 1990s, Mumford was charging $600 per test with $200 going to substitute teacher John Bowen, whom Mumford knew from his time as assistant principal at Humes Jr. High School.

Before that, prosecutors say Mumford would simply alter or otherwise change scores on the failing exams. But he had to change tactics when the testing service began reporting exam scores directly to school districts.

While some of the teachers sought out Mumford based on word of mouth, prosecutors say Mumford would also search state websites for teachers with temporary licenses that were about to expire. And he would attend discussion sessions where teachers discussed licensing issues. He also offered to tutor some teachers about to take the certification exams.

Two of those who were part of Mumford’s effort also told authorities that they refused several times and later relented because Mumford told them teachers would lose their jobs if they didn’t help.