DeKalb school chief releases audit to the public. Read it and let’s discuss

UPDATED Wednesday morning: As promised, Dr. Atkinson has posted the audit. Go here to read it.

UPDATE at 3:30: I just spoke to DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson who says she plans to release the forensic audit on the district website within the next 24 hours or sooner. She explained that the audit is only a draft and subject to change. She said she is overriding the attorney’s view that the document is privileged in its draft form since it already has been leaked to the media.

Atkinson said her goal was never to keep the audit from the public.  She is sending the draft audit to board members now and then will post. She wants parents to understand that this is only a draft from the auditors and changes may be made.

Parents in DeKalb County Schools are among the most dissatisfied in metro Atlanta, in large part because of a string of ineffective leaders, one of whom ended up in indicted.

New school chief Cheryl Atkinson arrived a year ago and cast herself as a change agent. She pledged a new era of openness, but the failure of her administration to release a much anticipated forensic audit undermines all her promises of transparency.

I am not sure why public officials continue to evade the state’s open records law, as they usually lose when challenges are mounted.

I also noted that the county is losing its law firm. AJC reporter Ty Tagami reports: The DeKalb County school board voted Monday to hunt for a new lawyer after learning that general counsel Sutherland Asbill & Brennan had resigned.

I would suggest DeKalb look for a lawyer who knows and understands the open record laws. I would also suggest that DeKalb Schools release the audit to its taxpayers or expect increasing suspicions and an even greater lack of confidence in Atkinson and her administration.

According to the AJC:

A long-awaited forensic audit has been delivered to the DeKalb County school system, and it may help explain why officials there have had to cut so deeply in the classroom.

Some of the central office staff eliminations the school board ordered in 2010 were not carried out, the audit says. For that and other reasons, the system wound up paying $20 million more than budgeted for central office salaries in fiscal year 2010 and $29 million more the next year, according to the audit, which was obtained by Channel 2 Action News.

District officials refused to release the document, which is labeled as a draft addressed to Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson, Thursday. System spokesman Jeff Dickerson refused to comment, saying the audit was exempt from public disclosure under a part of the law that holds accountants’ work as “privileged.”

An expert on Georgia’s open-records law, however, said DeKalb has no legal right to keep the audit from the public.

“The code section pertaining to an accountant’s notes does not trump the state open-records act,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “In this case, the audit given to the client — a public school system — should be disclosed.”

The audit, which was produced by the firm KPMG and leaked to Channel 2 Action News, says the board ordered the elimination of 150 central office positions in May 2010 for an expected savings of $11.5 million. Records from the school system’s finance and human resources departments differ about how many of those jobs were actually cut. Of 109 people listed by human resources as laid off, 56 remained on the payroll in different jobs, either because they were rehired or reassigned, the audit says.

The 31-page document notes plenty of other issues, including excessive fees for a line of credit, the way money was transferred between accounts and how retirees got watches and who paid for them.

Amy Trocci, a mother from Tucker with three children in the system, said she has suspected for years that mandatory central office cuts weren’t happening. Instead, she said, officials have cut teachers. “I don’t think there’s a school in the county that isn’t feeling the pain now,” she said. She said she wants ongoing oversight of spending rather than an occasional audit.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

169 comments Add your comment

Mountain Man

November 13th, 2012
7:32 am

Can’t cut those “friends and family”. The reason they don’t want to release the report yet is because it contains damning evidence,and they have to get their stories straight before they release it to the public.

So the school board ordered cuts to be made and the administrators didn’t do it. That would fall under the category of “gross insubordination” to me, which should result in immediate termination. If my boss told me to do something, and I deliberately refused to do it; I would be fired immediately when he found out.

Entitlement Society

November 13th, 2012
7:34 am

Why would any self-respecting teacher want to work in this system? What a sham. Talk about priorities being out of whack. In DeKalb it seems to be #1 – Admin #2 – Admin, and so on… Where do teachers and their students fit in?

Mountain Man

November 13th, 2012
7:34 am

Let’s see, we have to make cuts – should we cut administrators or should we cut teachers – the ones who are on the front lines of education. Easy decision – let’s get rid of teachers. Can’t have too many Generals.

Gifted Girl

November 13th, 2012
7:36 am

As a parent of two children in the school, a former high school mathematics teacher in the county, and as an alum of the Lithonia High School in DeKalb County, I cannot tell how disgusted I am by the current state of affairs in DeKalb. I do not understand why it is that this school system cannot seems to remember that the students come first. That they are in the “business” of educating kids. Its seems that the new superintendent is instead of being the “change agent” she touted herself to be is “more of the same” that we’ve had over the past 10 years or so. How a system can go from one of the good ones to one of the worst ones in this short span of time is just beyond me. I sincerely wish that everyone would JUST GET OVER THEMSELVES!!!!!! Its about the kids.

Mountain Man

November 13th, 2012
7:36 am

“Where do teachers and their students fit in?”

At the bottom, of course. If the Board of Education does not fire every administrator, then the State needs to remove the entire Board and another needs to be voted in.

Retired Teacher

November 13th, 2012
7:37 am

Why is anyone remotely surprised at this?

This is the type of thing that teachers have been stating on this bloc for a LONG time now. Administrators are protected creatures. Teachers and those who have direct contact with students such as parapros are expendable.

Mountain Man

November 13th, 2012
7:39 am

In a way it still is the fault of the Board of Education. When they ordered the central office cuts, did they insist on having a list of the people cut and make sure that their orders were carried out?

Dunwoody Mom

November 13th, 2012
7:50 am

Everytime we think the School District can’t sink any lower, they do. Of course, the SACS report is due soon, so we may be in for another “jolt”.

The school district might as well go ahead and release before they are paying further legal fees in fighting an Open Records request. Dr. Atkinson is violating the law in this case.

Principal Skinner

November 13th, 2012
8:03 am

It’s so cute that some people actually believe that things will start changing now. Bless your hearts, but sorry, nothing is going to change in DeKalb. It will only get worse. Liberals can’t believe that a school system, run by liberals, is a COMPLETE FAILURE and thusly, will not push for accountability

Lee

November 13th, 2012
8:10 am

“System spokesman Jeff Dickerson refused to comment, saying the audit was exempt from public disclosure under a part of the law that holds accountants’ work as “privileged.””

As a CPA, I am not aware of any law that provides for the work of an accountant to be “privileged” in a case such as this. The only time I have conducted privileged work was at the direction of an attorney, in which case, the work was privileged under the “Attorney Work Product Doctrine”. There are some Accountant/Client privileges with regards to tax advice, but those privileges are very narrow in scope.

That said, the CPA is bound by Accounting Standards, which prohibits the disclosure of client information except under certain situations. Those standards are similar to the teacher standards of not disclosing student information.

The district, as the customer of the CPA, is free to disclose the information at will.

Or, in this case, they are free to obfuscate and wind up in court in an open records request. Hey, it’s only taxpayer money….

alm

November 13th, 2012
8:10 am

I thought they had 2 law firms already.
Even if the state took over and a new board was voted in I don’t know that we would get a better one. Sadly, DeKalb voters don’t have a good track record when it comes to the BOE.

Lynn43

November 13th, 2012
8:17 am

Principal, This has nothing to do with liberals. I’m (I guess you could call) a liberal, but if I were the superintendent, I would solve this problem, pronto. I’ve been in every area of education for 62 years and would jerk the “bejesus” out of this train wreck. Maybe I should apply to be superintendent.

Attentive Parent/Invisible Serfs Collar

November 13th, 2012
8:37 am

Much like Beverly Hall, the Central Office administrators understand just how much curriculum and instructional practices are being driven by political considerations. The model is supposed to be life employment as long as the desired policies are implemented. Policies that have nothing to do with education in the traditionally understood sense and everything to do with reimagining a radically different American society.

Must then protect those with the scheming blueprints from the ire of the taxpayers. Taxes to fund an Insurrection is just not a good PR strategy.

sneak peak into education

November 13th, 2012
8:44 am

The parents and teachers in Dekalb should blitz call the head office and demand that the audit is released. Dekalb County Board of Educ and Cheryl Atkinson are only furthering the damage to the school district.

Centrist

November 13th, 2012
8:53 am

Administration in public school systems ALWAYS trump the front line when cuts are necessary. Most teachers aspire to move to the cushy and protected administrative arm – for good reason.

The audit won’t be (officially) released until there is too much pressure not to release it – but the leaks, the obvious reluctance to release, and common knowledge tell the sad story. Cronyism/business as usual.

Dunwoody Mom

November 13th, 2012
8:53 am

I had real concerns when the hiring of Dr. Atkinson was announced. Many of us voiced those concerns to BOE members – several who publicly ridiculed us for our concerns. Sadly, guess who was right?

I had hoped that Dr. Atkinson could make good on her “new day in DeKalb”. But, all we have is same ole, same old.

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

November 13th, 2012
8:58 am

The AJC is getting a bit sensational on DCSS, but it’s pretty troubling that the system has been in crisis mode for like four years now. There’s definitely damage control going on if Jeff Dickerson doesn’t have some smooth, dismissive comment to make. I almost threw up when I saw him on the GA Gang last month dismissing parents who were upset about the calendar change. Conflict of interests much Jeff?

Dear Jeff and Sup. Atkinson, you have serious transparency issues and that’s just one of Dekalb’s smaller problems…

bootney farnsworth

November 13th, 2012
9:04 am

its really very simple. DCSS is engaging in a game of chicken, happy in the knowledge that 99 times out of 100 the public will blink. experience has taught them if they can keep dancing long enough, the public will be distracted by something shiny.

bootney farnsworth

November 13th, 2012
9:06 am

why doesn’t the AJC sue for the release?

APS pensions......Really!

November 13th, 2012
9:14 am

Maureen….could you check into this?
Looks like Atlanta Board of Education’s pension fund is one of the worst funded plans in the US. So what does that mean for APS moneywise. Money somewhere has to pay for this underfunding…or the fund goes belly-up…. and soon if it’s only around 17% funded.

http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2012/11/the-20-worst-funded-government-pension.html
Atlanta Board of Education Fund–only 17.4% funded.

Once Again

November 13th, 2012
9:17 am

I just want to believe, I just have to believe, everything just has to be ok with the prisons/schools I send my children to everyday otherwise I would have to take personal responsibility for the poor decisions I have made regarding their education, the blind faith I have put into this failed system, and the undying support I continue to have for a system that has brought american children from the highest global rankings to below some third world countries.

So they want to believe? And what if the report shows exactly what everyone knows…that DeKalb schools are a complete failure? After the gnashing of teeth, the cries for “investigations”, the calls for “reform”, virtually every parent will gleefully put their child back on the prison bus the next morning and continue to “believe” that the education/indoctrination they are getting is ok.

The smart ones of course have already pulled their kids out and are homeschooling them or doing what it takes to afford a private school choice.

Tucker Guy

November 13th, 2012
9:26 am

I have observed that Dekalb County Schools under Dr. Atkinson either ignore open records requests or make up ridiculous costs to prevent the filer from continuing. Go read what the response was to the Dekalb School Watch II open records request about how many administrators get cars. They won’t end up in court fighting one.

My question is why doesn’t the AJC ever follow up on information forwarded to Ty about issues that are current? The malfeasance stories are always about past years.
Why not a story about how special education students were left without services during testing?
Why no stories about how some high school classes has over 50 students in them (some sitting on the floor) for over a month?
Why no mention of the hiring freeze when there are schools with no special education teachers to serve the students?

concernedmom30329

November 13th, 2012
9:27 am

The question is — what are they hiding. The AJC has the report and I would hope that they and WSB would go line by line and look for every smoking gun there is. The information already released is both damming and mind boggling. However, references to irregularities in the purchasing policy are probably a bigger issue for whomever was a beneficiary of those purchases.

I suspect that Atkinson is reluctant to hold anyone accountable.

Mountain Man

November 13th, 2012
9:28 am

“The smart ones of course have already pulled their kids out and are homeschooling them or doing what it takes to afford a private school choice.”

And now have the choice of creating a charter school as an end run around the failing DeKalb School System.

Pardon My Blog

November 13th, 2012
9:28 am

I opposed the hiring of Atkinson, have called for a complete dismissal of all BoE members and have said that it is time for the State to step in and reorganize and run the system until intelligent and qualified people are found to run it. It would also not be such a bad idea to split the system into two smaller systems. I would like to see the audit results before (1) they have a chance to “tweak” the results and (2) they accidently “lose” it!

Snuffy Smith

November 13th, 2012
9:34 am

Maybe the problem is with the School Board. If rotating “superintendents” isn’t doing the job, maybe we’re rotating the wrong folks.

Erica Long

November 13th, 2012
9:40 am

Are we still supposed to be surprised that the Charter School referendum passed overwhelmingly in DeKalb?

Bryce

November 13th, 2012
9:44 am

Why doesn’t the AJC print where the administrators received their degrees from. Most of these administrators have degrees from third tier levels if they actually exist.

Clean house.

bu2

November 13th, 2012
9:49 am

Lee is right. There is no accountant privilege.

They are probably hiding it to protect board members and Tyson (is she STILL on the payroll?) from embarrassment.

Atkinson should terminate anyone who deliberately flouted board policy, not that I expect that.

indigo

November 13th, 2012
9:50 am

They could release the audit.

But it’s easier to:

1. Layoff more teachers
2. Raise property taxes
3. Continue, along with their “friends and family” to sit on their fat rearends, do just a little work and collect large salaries.

I’ll let you guess which is most likely to happen.

Lynn43

November 13th, 2012
9:51 am

The best suggestion so far has been to divide the system. It is too large. Much better results will come from 2 or 3 smaller systems.

bu2

November 13th, 2012
9:51 am

Dekalb actually seems to have been reasonably receptive to charter schools. If they were going to fight them, they would never have allowed the Museum School in Avondale.

George

November 13th, 2012
9:56 am

This is a dam but Look at the facts something is wrong here this is just a dam SHAME .If someone is stealing please put their ass in JAIL.

Dr. John Trotter

November 13th, 2012
9:57 am

@ Dunwoody Mom: SACS won’t do anything but huff and puff with DeKalb. Heck, look at Atlanta…worst cheating scandal in American public education, according to The New York Times, and Mark Elgart and SACS did essentially NOTHING. SACS is a joke. A complete hoax.

bu2

November 13th, 2012
9:57 am

And the question becomes-Why did the legal counsel quit? Was the school district asking them to do something unethical? Or were they involved in something unethical already? Or is the school district wanting to do something unethical and forced them to resign? Its unusal for a law firm to walk away from a big contract.

bu2

November 13th, 2012
9:59 am

This is another example of the incompetency of the school board. Why weren’t they insisting on answers as to why the district was over budget?

Dunwoody Mom

November 13th, 2012
10:03 am

@bu2 – those were my questions. Why would a law firm walk away from $3 milllion/year contract before the contract has even expired? There’s just a whole lot we don’t know. And knowing what we do know, that thought is oh, so scary.

Disgusted in Dekalb

November 13th, 2012
10:07 am

And what is one of SACS’ biggest complaints about the DCSS board? That it asks too many questions of the school system. The opponents of the charter school amendment warned that it would take “local control” away from the parents and taxpayers. This type of financial mismanagement and lack of transparency has gone on for years, with board members either too incompetent to discern it or committed to perpetuating it (Nancy Jester excepted). We have no control, which is why we overwhelmingly supported the charter amendment.

Private Citizen

November 13th, 2012
10:19 am

This is a pertinent and excellent approach to things, focusing on audit. Impressive. Thank you.

One of things I learned from Harvard forum video on New Orleans charterization is that there are excellent and capable outside consultant firms who are expert at analyzing events and doing “audit.” It would make a lot more sense for the state DOE to be commissioning the services of outside firms to audit or otherwise analyze the management structure of a school district. Expecting a county school system to do an audit and them publish their findings seems problematic in several ways. Doing it from the state level would also restore some mission to the state DOE in place of their redelivering initiatives from afar and then doing this sort of auto-fronting auto-marketing for these same initiatives, i.e. saturation testing, NCLB, RTTT etc.

The main conclusion of the Harvard discussion video on charterization of New Orleans schools is that state-level audit is the most important thing. This is what they arrived at after an hour of discussion covering many topics.
________________

Meanwhile, if there is an existent audit of Dekalb County schools, yes, absolutely, the document should be public. When did school districts get the idea that they could play hide-the-document? It seems many do this sort of sociopathic forgetting that they work in a government structure, not private business. Their finance documents are the property of the public and should be viewed on demand. Why is the public waiting on this information? Does Private Citizen have to drive to the courthouse and spend $50. to sue them to release their audit?

The real story is that this needs to be done from the state level, and that there are excellent companies available to be hired for this type of analysis.

Private Citizen

November 13th, 2012
10:21 am

That’s real leadership, to draw some clear lines and get things done according to principle.

Private Citizen

November 13th, 2012
10:24 am

bu2 This is another example of the incompetency of the school board. Why weren’t they insisting on answers as to why the district was over budget?

Surely you jest. I know a guy who did some time in a no-fence country-club federal prison. He said everybody in there “didn’t do it.”

Private Citizen

November 13th, 2012
10:30 am

I think the SACS regulation method of K-12 is peculiar and obsolete. If they were running a shipyard, half their ships would be sinking. I think we need some “marine services” from the state level, old school chain of command, write policy and follow the law. The current system is that the state are propaganda delivery artists and they have a side company to ride soft over the mess. Must be nice to subcontract your responsibilities and then put the golf clubs in the trunk on the way out the driveway. There are likely outside organizations who have influenced this existent system that has basically removed boundaries of states doing their own housekeeping.

John Konop

November 13th, 2012
10:37 am

It is sad because the district has a lot of potential via the location. This district could transform itself with a proper plan and I would suggest the following:

1) Team up with college and tech schools in the area to create the best joint enrolment options in the state
2) Team up with colleges an use a creative intern model for tutoring and classrooms
3) Ask for waivers for No Child Left behind 4 year college and out requirements
4) Team up with the business community for internship/jobs for high school students
5) Create a co-op volunteer program with community and parents to help with mentoring kids and cleaning up the schools
6) Create a mentoring program with vibrant business community in DeKalb
7) Create a special at risk pool of students and seek volunteer help with the above groups and use the media to help promote the program
8) Create a home school/public school option

Shar

November 13th, 2012
10:48 am

For a change, the Board is not directly accountable for this latest outrage. With that in mind, the entire Board should immediately order the release of this audit and, if it does indeed show that Atkinson and her administration insubordinately disregarded the direct order of the Board, she should be put on a probationary status right away along with her cabinet, with terminations beginning in 30 days if the layoff numbers are not met.

It’s a rare chance for the Board to show strong action in cleaning up a problem for which they are not at fault. Seize it!

RCB

November 13th, 2012
10:49 am

Dr. Atkinson has to go. She is no more competent than the 2 or 3 preceding her. Her previous record is not sterling, so WHY was she selected? I think we ran out of candidates and she was the last one standing.

Ernest

November 13th, 2012
10:53 am

Lee’s comments intrigued me so I decided to ask a contracts lawyer for their opinion. Given the article above, their opinion is the school district is not obligated ‘at this point’ to release the audit because it is still a draft. Once it becomes final, without question it should be made available to the public. This contracts lawyer is not familiar of GA law with respect to opens records and drafts so take that into consideration also. They also commented that though the media has a ‘leaked’ copy, they are under no obligation to share it.

I’m not surprised by the initial findings. It will be interesting to find out the justification given to not reduce personnel levels. Did some people retire unexpectedly and those that were scheduled to be RIF’d take some of those positions or did Board members get involved in personnel decisions after making a public vote to reduce headcount?

Returning DCSS Parent

November 13th, 2012
10:54 am

@John Konop

I like the way you think. Your suggestions are excellent and can be implemented with very little disturbance to the teachers or students. Of, course, your thinking is logical and ethical so DCSS would totally disregard your suggestions. We need answers from DCSS and we need them NOW!
Although Dr. Atkinson was not the superintendent in 2010, she should find out who is responsible for not making the required cuts to the budget and they need to explain why they didn’t make the cuts or pack their things and move on to another job, not in DCSS. I am fed up with the ineptitude and obvious disregard for the taxpayers of DeKalb County. This kind of crap is why I voted yes for the charter school amendment. Our children deserve better!!!

DunMoody

November 13th, 2012
10:54 am

bu2: yes, DeKalb has approved charters, including conversion charters like Peachtree Charter Middle School, but they do not allow the charters to utilize the autonomy written and approved into the documents. One of many reasons I supported the Charter amendment was to have a recourse available to charters laboring under the punitive and exploitative DeKalb School District administration.

The Deal

November 13th, 2012
10:55 am

This school system is like an episode of “Infested”. Even when they do hire an exterminator, sometimes the family just has to walk away and let the rodents or insects or snakes have the house.

At this point, I am done focusing on our board and administrators. Obviously they are like drug addicts, addicted to our tax money and fully aware that no agency or official has any power to do anything to them. Nothing is going to fix them.

I remain appalled that our state legislators do not at least try to do more to remedy this situation legislatively. They claim they will be outvoted by their rural counterparts who have an inferiority complex with respect to the metro counties, but at least get an attempt on the books. The constitution needs to be amended to allow for smaller school districts. There needs to be a parent trigger law for schools and school systems. There need to be laws in place to require annual audits. Public schools should no longer be funded by property taxes.

Any or all of these would send the rats who have made their nest at Mountain Industrial go scurrying to another state that coddles its local school systems like we do now.

Concernedmom30329

November 13th, 2012
11:03 am

Ernest

Your logic doesn’t work — if someone retired and someone else stepped in, then a position would still be eliminated. There was no reduction in salaries and probably no real reduction in force.