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Baltimore, Atlanta Area District Audits Reveal Lack of Accountability, Odd Staffing

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki @jzubrzycki

Two pieces of news related to district audits have recently come this way. The particular spending issues in question are different, but the perpetual big picture question of how public education funds should be used by districts—and who's accountable for them—remains.

First: In the 164,694-student school district in Gwinnett County, Georgia, in the metro Atlanta area, the issue is legal. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the school district may be breaking the law by paying the salaries of two economic development strategists for the county.

The district pays $150,000 each year to reimburse the salaries of the two strategists, who work at Partnership Gwinnett, a program of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. The claim is that economic development has bolstered the schools' tax revenue by expanding the local property-tax base—and that the Partnership has increased the school district's tax revenue by $6 million in the past five years.

District officials say their spending was legal. The state department of education is investigating whether or not this is the case. The state's department of audits and accounts seems to disagree: The Journal Constitution reports that "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.'"

Meanwhile, the district's teachers are not receiving projected raises and will take two unpaid furlough days this school year, the paper reports. The case was spearheaded by a citizen watchdog group, Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government.

Second: In Baltimore, where a new $2.5 billion project to improve its stock of school buildings is in the works, an audit has found that the school district's financial management is...questionable at best.

As the Baltimore Sun reports, the issues are, sadly, numerous. The state's final audit is slated to be released later this week, but according to a preliminary audit obtained by the Sun, the district failed to collect $3.9 million in debts, paid $6.9 million for a special education instruction contract that had already expired, and paid employees for overtime that was unverified and often undocumented, among other issues. There seems to have been a serious lack of follow-through on making sure contractors' work is verified.

Baltimore has a major plan to revamp its buildings in the next few years. The Sun says the Baltimore City Council's chair has cautioned the district's CEO Andrés Alonso that this audit could make it more challenging to fund that project. The Sun reports that city school officials' expenses have also been questioned recently, as expensive travel, dinners, and renovations, and receipts have come to light.

Alonso has been credited with improvements in the often-challenged school district, but this kind of audit can have consequences for public perception.

Want to keep up with school district and leadership news? Follow @district_doss on Twitter.

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