There has been a lot of attention on Atlanta schools in the wake of the CRCT cheating scandal, but the second bad actor in this drama, Dougherty County, has garnered less attention. One reason is location: Albany is far from the media center of Atlanta so there has been less press about the blatant cheating there on state exams.
But given what is now unfolding in Dougherty, it seems that close attention to this under performing and troubled school system is long overdue. In fact, this district seems a possible candidate for state takeover based on these breaking news stories.
According to the AJC, the state Department of Education has determined that the Dougherty County School District is not eligible to receive at least $10 million in federal funds because of concerns that the district has inflated the number of students who qualify for federal meal assistance. The agency also said the district has not properly overseen federal grant programs.
An incredible element of this story, reported by the Albany Herald, is that one of the questionable uses of federal money was the $18,000 paid to a motivational speaker for three appearances. That is $6,000 per appearance, an unbelievable expense for any school system in these hard budget times. Such extravagant expenditures undermine the arguments from schools that they need more money to function.
Two weeks ago, The Albany Herald obtained an email dated June 26 from GADOE Title Programs Division Director Margo DeLaune to DCSS Superintendent Joshua Murfree in which she wrote that “additional information and/or supporting documentation is needed for the items listed below that were paid with Title I, Part A monies.”
The 34 items in question ranged from $22 for emergency and registration cards to $91,000 for consulting fees paid to Darrell Sabbs and Associates.
All total, the state was seeking supporting documentation of more than $142,000 in Title I expenditures and gave the system until July 13 to respond to the request.
Delaune confirmed Tuesday she had received some documentation from the local system, but said she didn’t know at the time if it was all of the information requested by her office.
In addition to the Sabbs contract, the state was also seeing information on an $18,000 check cut to motivational speaker Joseph Washington for three appearances before students at Dougherty, Monroe and Albany high schools. “A motivational speaker is not an allowable Title I, Part A expense,” LeLaune wrote. “In addition, the cost of $6,000 per day appears not to follow the reasonable and necessary component of an allowable Title I, Part A expenditure.
“Please provide follow-up documentation to support the necessity of the cost and how this meets the compliance of academic interventions for Title I, Part A expenditures.”
The department’s move is an extraordinary step, one no one at the department can recall being taken before. If a district is found to use federal funds in inappropriate ways, the state is responsible for paying the money back. “Our teams have been down there and worked with them and worked with them and worked with them,” Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge said. “They’re not where they need to be.”
The district, which includes the southwestern Georgia town of Albany, has had its share of troubles in recent years. Investigations found that it and the Atlanta Public Schools system were major hubs for standardized test cheating in 2009.
The cheating investigation in Dougherty County also uncovered evidence that a principal in the district and her husband had falsely claimed that they were eligible for a free lunch program reserved for the poor. The couple was indicted, and similar charges were filed against Dougherty County School Board Member Velvet Riggins based on a tip to police, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported.
The governor removed Riggins from office earlier this month, according to the Albany Herald.
Losing $10 million for this school year would be a big blow for the district, whose operating budget is listed on its website as $114.8 million. The district could still receive the money if it complies with federal documentation requirements and clears up questions about the number of students who are eligible for federal meal assistance.
Hearing about possible misuse of the federal meal assistance program in Dougherty, the Georgia Department of Education attempted to investigate it in late May, state documents show. Department officials, however, were denied access to program records when they visited the district, according to a letter the department wrote to Dougherty Schools Superintendent Joshua Murfree Jr.
The state warned Dougherty in that letter that it could place a hold on all federal funds that are distributed to districts based on the number of students who qualify for federal meal assistance.
In addition to questions about how many Dougherty students actually qualify for federal meal assistance, state officials also had concerns about the district’s oversight of other federal grant programs.
Dougherty receives money from the federal School Improvement Grant program, from a program created to assist homeless students and from the Race to the Top program.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog