Agency: Gwinnett school funding may be illegal

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Agency: Gwinnett school funding may be illegal

A state agency says Gwinnett County Public Schools may be breaking the law by contributing $150,000 annually to a local economic development program.

The school district pays the salaries of two economic development strategists at Partnership Gwinnett, a Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce program that markets the county to businesses worldwide.

School officials justify the expense — which has totaled $900,000 over six years — by saying that new businesses attracted by the program expand the local property tax base, which, in turn, gives them more tax money to educate students.

A local watchdog group, Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government, has questioned the legality of the expenditures, saying district tax dollars should be spent directly on schools, not on economic development.

The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts agrees. And the state Department of Education plans to seek an attorney general’s opinion on the legality.

“We are not attorneys. We can’t interpret the law,” said Claire Arnold, director of the audit department’s education audit division. “But it appears to us it would not be (legal.)”

School officials issued a statement Thursday, saying the school system “could not and did not” make a monetary contribution to the partnership. The system reimburses the partnership for the two salaries dedicated to economy developpment, something allowed both under school board policy and state law, said Sloan Roach, school system spokeswoman.

“There is signficant value to the school district in ensuring the economic vitality of Gwinnett County,” Roach said.

The partnership’s economic development efforts have generated more than $800 million in five years, boosting school district tax revenue by about $6 million, she said.

Sabrina Smith, a member of the citizens group that filed the complaint, welcomed the audit department’s finding.

“Education funds, we feel, should be used for education,” Smith said. “That’s the way the state law reads.”

Smith’s group has criticized public funding of Partnership Gwinnett, whose successes include luring NCR’s corporate headquarters from Ohio in 2009.

The program has a budget of about $1.8 million annually – much of it from government agencies. Gwinnett County contributes $500,000 annually. Local cities and other government agencies, along with local businesses, also contribute.

Smith asked the state Department of Education to review the school district’s economic development spending. The education agency in turn asked the Department of Audits and Accounts to review it.

The audits department last week notified DOE that the expenditures do not appear to comply with a state law that requires “school funds shall be used to pay for educational purposes … and for no other purpose.” The law lists personnel salaries, school facilities, buses and extracurricular activities as educational purposes.

Donna Aker, president of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators, said: “I’m happy to see the state is looking at it.”

“At this point in time, I don’t’think they are doing anything illegal,” Aker said. “But this is not something we need to do in these times.”

Gwinnett teachers are taking two unpaid furlough days this year and are not receiving annual step increases for longevity. Restoration of one or both of those should be the priority if the county wants to maintain high-quality teachers, Aker said.

Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said he expects the agency to send a letter to Attorney General Sam Olens within the next couple of weeks.

“We are working on gathering some factual and financial information about these specific expenses,” Cardoza said.

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