School district ordered to return federal grants

The DeKalb County School District has been ordered to return $2.1 million to a federal anti-poverty program because district officials failed to show that they allocated the money as required.

The Georgia Department of Education characterized the repayment as a “corrective action” for failure to meet the federal “comparability requirement” under the Title 1 program, which supplements the budgets of schools with higher proportions of students from low-income households. To be in compliance, school districts must use state and local funds to provide “substantially comparable” services to all schools before the federal funds supplement those in the Title 1 program. DeKalb could not show that it did.

Georgia DOE ordered the repayment in a Nov. 14 letter to DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond. On Monday, his staff informed the county school board that he wanted to set aside nearly $1.2 million to pay back the federal government.

The difference in dollar amounts results from DeKalb’s contention that it owes less money. Officials believe they actually owe $600,000 for fiscal year 2014, and are assuming a similar amount for fiscal year 2015, said Morcease Beasley, who oversees DeKalb’s federally-funded programs.

Beasley said the state action was triggered by an imbalance of special education staff at high- versus low-poverty schools. “Basically,” he said, “we needed more instructional staff at Title 1 schools.” He calculated the imbalance at 18 staffers but said the Georgia DOE put the number at 50. A meeting with the state is scheduled in February, he said, adding that DeKalb gets around $40 million a year in federal funding and does not want to put that money at risk.

DeKalb school board chairman Melvin Johnson was diplomatic about the disagreement. “We’re working to explain our position,” he said.

The Georgia DOE says DeKalb disregarded the rules for calculating comparable services by failing to report the costs for all special education and paraprofessional positions when determining whether state and local resources were equitably distributed.

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