Attorney General to review Gwinnett schools contributions to local chamber

The state Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the legality of Gwinnett County Public Schools contributing taxpayer money to help fund the local chamber of commerce’s business recruitment efforts.

The head of a citizen watchdog group has questioned whether that’s a legal use of tax money collected for education. She’s also challenged how it was done — largely out of public view.

The school system has given Partnership Gwinnett, an arm of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, $900,000, or $150,000 a year since 2007. The money helps pay the salaries of two partnership employees who work to recruit new business to the county and who, school system officials contend, bring in a return in property taxes that far outweighs the investment.

State School Superintendent John Barge asked Attorney General Sam Olens to weigh, in based on the watchdog’s complaint and a state auditor’s assessment that the spending might not be legal.

Lauren Kane, Olens’ spokeswoman, said Thursday the office has received Barge’s request and is reviewing the issue.

The chamber was paid by the school system under a policy that allows J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent and CEO of Gwinnett County Public Schools, to approve contacts and purchases valued at $1 million or less without school board approval — leeway far greater than any other metro superintendent, or even Barge.

“It was not a matter that we took a vote on because, according to policy, there are some things I can do,” Wilbanks said in an interview this week.

He said school board members were aware and supportive. “And we’ve made no attempt to keep this secret,” Wilbanks said

Sabrina Smith, chairman of the Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government, said she’s gotten little cooperation from school or chamber officials as she’s tried to investigate what she believes, under state law, is an illegal use of school tax money.

“This just seems very odd. It seems like they are wanting to keep it under wraps,” she said, noting that school board minutes reflect no public vote or discussion of giving the money to the chamber.

“I think taxpayers deserve to have questions answered before they continue to fund it,” Smith said.

Wilbanks said he remains confident that the money could be spent on economic development and was a wise investment.

“I can’t think of a better investment, save educating the kids,” the superintendent said.

Based on the partnership’s annual report, Gwinnett has seen a $6 million annual increase in property taxes for its $150,000 a year investment, Wilbanks said.

With $150,000, the district could probably hire two teachers, he said.

“We can hire a good number with $6 million.”

Still Wilbanks said the flap over the chamber money will bring change.

“I understand people want us to be very transparent and open,” he said. “We will certainly make sure henceforth that’s done.”

Wilbanks said the school system’s sponsorship of Partnership Gwinnett has been advertised and emerged from community discussions of how various groups could pitch in to help as the economy weakened and revenues started to fall.

“Rather than us just sitting around and gripping about funding going down, about the tax base not growing, we joined with county government and the business community to do something about it,” he said.

In a letter to Barge’s office, Rick Cost, the school system’s chief financial officer, said the use of school tax money for the chamber’s work is “based on both the Constitution and practical experience.”

His letter specifically cites an amendment to the state Constitution, approved by voters in November 2008, that authorizes groups, including local boards of education “to use tax funds for redevelopment purposes and programs.

He says the money to the chamber “is no different than payments to other companies who provide services, such as financial advisors, investment managers, computer programmers, custodians, groundskeepers, etc..

“We are confident that any objective review of the facts will lead to a … conclusion that the expenditures in question are legal, justified and proper.”

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