Federal payback deepens DeKalb schools’ budget woes

Just months after a round of budget cuts that reduced the number of teachers in the DeKalb County schools, district officials may have to pull out the paring knife again now because of an audit that found misspending of federal funds.

No fraud is alleged in a state report on DeKalb’s use of more than $900,000 in grant money last school year, but Georgia officials say the system spent it in ways that are not allowed.

The money came from the federal Title 1 program, which subsidizes schools with concentrations of students from low-income households. The Georgia Department of Education found the money was spent on purposes that don’t fall under Title 1.

“We’re not saying they weren’t good things for students,” said Margo DeLaune, who oversaw the state review, which was first obtained by Channel 2 Action News. “We’re not saying anything was illegal. We’re just saying there were some items that were not Title 1 allowable.”

DeKalb officials said Monday they plan to reimburse the federal government $910,000, though they did not say when or how. Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson said in a statement she is working with district officials “to determine how the general fund budget must be modified, since this repayment expenditure was not planned for within this year’s budget.”

The district, whose annual operating budget is about $730 million, is still reeling from more than $78 million in cuts in June. Class sizes rose by an average of two students per teacher, bus routes were eliminated and library staffers and other support employees lost their jobs.

“The thought of having to pay a million dollars is really distasteful to me because we don’t have the money,” school board chairman Eugene Walker said. “This was a costly mistake, and I’m anxious to see how it occurred.”

The state report says the bulk of the money — $885,000 — went to Communities in Schools, an Arlington, Va.-based dropout prevention organization hired to improve performance at 15 DeKalb schools.

Communities in Schools had been providing the service since 2008, but it wasn’t until the state conducted its random review that it discovered spending on uncovered costs, such as mentoring students who’d been suspended.

Officials from Communities in Schools’ Atlanta office could not be reached for comment. Walker, the school board chairman, said he’d heard good things about the organization. So had David Schutten, president of the teachers advocacy group Organization of DeKalb Educators.

“They do incredible work in the schools in DeKalb and Atlanta,” Schutten said.

State Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican from Dunwoody, often criticizes DeKalb schools and its management, but he praised Communities in Schools and said DeKalb’s errors, such as miscategorizing expenses, did not sound egregious.

“I can understand how that happens with all the rules and regulations,” Millar said. “Quite frankly, things may be over-regulated.”

School district spokesman Jeff Dickerson said officials responsible for overseeing the money are already in other jobs as a result of previous administrative “streamlining” by Atkinson. He didn’t identify the employees involved and said he wasn’t sure where they’d been moved.

The remaining $25,000 that DeKalb is being asked to repay was for a long list of relatively minor expenses, such as reimbursement for staff travel to conferences. Officials failed to provide documentation, such as agendas, that confirmed the conferences were for topics covered under the federal subsidy.

At Henderson Mill Elementary School, officials didn’t produce copies of a program checklist signed by the school’s Title 1 director.

Tim McGaughey, a member of Henderson Mill’s fundraising foundation, said educators are drowning in paperwork.

“One of the problems of being an educator today is it’s not merely enough being with, and educating, children. It’s about tracking and documenting bureaucratic detail.”

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