In a blow to the Baltimore school system's crusade to hold principals responsible for suspected cheating in schools, independent hearing officers have recommended that two administrators who were removed from Abbottston Elementary should be reinstated amid a flawed investigation and a lack of credible evidence provided by the school system.

In documents obtained by The Sun this week, the hearing officers raised critical issues about how the system went about establishing fault on the part of the school's administrators.

Abbottston Principal Angela Faltz and Assistant Principal Marcy Isaac were both found to have committed no personal wrongdoing based on evidence presented by the system to independent hearing officers they hired.  The officers found that the system not only failed to prove they were responsible for cheating, but failed to prove that cheating took place at the school at all.

Both were recommended by the officers, hired by the school system, to be reinstated, with full back pay. Ultimately, the city school board will decide whether to accept or reject the hearing officers' opinion, and whether the administrators will be fully reinstated. The parties will go before the board in June.

The Sun's initial story on the outcome of the cases can be read here.

In hundreds of documents obtained by The Sun, jarring details about the case illustrated how key players in the city and state's initial nvestigation stopped short of asserting that the school had cheated when its scores dropped drastically in 2010. The officials also reserved judgment about who or what played a part in the drops.

These conclusions were shared with schools CEO Andres Alonso early on in the investigative process, the hearing records show. But Alonso maintained that despite interviews conducted by his investigator, and a plethora of other reasons offered for the drops, data like the school's benchmark scores (pre-tests that help predict how students will perform on the Maryland School Assessments) and further statistical analysis were just as important, he said.

The system argued strongly that the school's benchmark scores were so far off, that the principals should have known that something wasn't right, and had a duty to report their suspicions.

"Dr. Alonso agrees with the view that statistical analysis cannot show causation," the officer's report summarized.

"He also agrees that benchmark testing ... does not in itself, prove there was cheating. Dr. Alonso was aware of statements from 26 Abbottston employees, all of whom denied cheating at the school. He feels he gave the statements their proper weight, particularly given that the same kinds of statements were made about another school where it was ultimately determined that cheating had occurred."

One year later, the principals' defense team pointed out, Alonso would submit the very same factors that occurred at Abbottston -- like high student mobility, teacher turnover, small testing population -- as legitimate explanations for why schools across the system may have experienced declines in a year of heightened monitoring.

The schools chief said that he also drew conclusions based on facts that no other city school experienced drops like Abbottston, and tracking how students performed before and after attending the school raised doubt about their performance while at the school.

Parents of students who attended Abbottston at the time of the alleged cheating testified that the school's intensive test preparation methods prepared their students not only to excel in testing, but in middle school.

Tonese Smith, whose son attended the school from 2006 through 2010 and offered short testimony in the case, said she was disheartened to see the case progress. She testified in favor of Faltz at the hearings.

“As far as I was concerned, it was just a lot of shenanigans,” Smith said. “There was just not enough evidence. It was rough. I don’t think I would have been strong enough to go through that.”

Her son D’Andre described how Faltz was like a mother to him, giving him money to get a haircut when he needed it, and visited classrooms to say how well they were doing.

He said his classes at Abbottston prepared him for a rigorous middle school program that he now attends at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy.

“They gave me work that they knew we were going to do in sixth grade," D'Andre, an eighth-grader, told The Sun on the phone yesterday, "so when we got there I had all A’s, and ever since then, my grades have been good.”

The glue that held the investigation together -- and eventually pulled it apart -- was an erasure analysis, conducted by a state official, that was found to be "crude," by one officer,  and "incompetent" by another.

Alonso's witnesses, including the system's chief investigator, said that the school's scores would not have been invalidated without the erasure analysis. Others said they would not have been able to reach conclusions without it. All said that in the end, they couldn't say who did the erasing.