Big ugly: Dougherty school system is crashing hard

On top of their own test¬†cheating scandal, Dougherty County, Georgia schools are embroiled in a free-lunch program scandal that could cost the system $10 million in federal aid. That’s equivalent to 9% of the county’s total school budget.

Already there have been indictments and Gov. Nathan Deal has removed a school board member over her involvemnt in an alleged scam.  How seedy is it? A school principal and her husband have been indicted on charges they falsely claimed THEY were eligible for the free lunch program.

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The Georgia Department of Education has determined that the Dougherty County School District is not eligible to receive at least $10 million in federal funds because of concerns that the district has inflated the number of students who qualify for federal meal assistance. The agency also said the district has not properly overseen federal grant programs.

Large chunks of the federal funding that goes to school districts is based on the number of poor students in a district who qualify for federal meal assistance.

The department’s move is an extraordinary step, one no one at the department can recall being taken before. If a district is found to use federal funds in inappropriate ways, the state is responsible for paying the money back.

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The district, which includes the southwestern Georgia town of Albany, has had its share of troubles in recent years. Investigations found that it and the Atlanta Public Schools system were major hubs for standardized test cheating in 2009.

The cheating investigation in Dougherty County also uncovered evidence that a principal in the district and her husband had falsely claimed that they were eligible for a free lunch program reserved for the poor. The couple was indicted, and similar charges were filed against Dougherty County School Board Member Velvet Riggins based on a tip to police, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported.

The governor removed Riggins from office earlier this month, according to the Albany Herald.

Losing $10 million for this school year would be a big blow for the district, whose operating budget is listed on its website as $114.8 million. The district could still receive the money if it complies with federal documentation requirements and clears up questions about the number of students who are eligible for federal meal assistance.

Hearing about possible misuse of the federal meal assistance program in Dougherty, the Georgia Department of Education attempted to investigate it in late May, state documents show.

Department officials, however, were denied access to program records when they visited the district, according to a letter the department wrote to Dougherty Schools Superintendent Joshua Murfree Jr.

The state warned Dougherty in that letter that it could place a hold on all federal funds that are distributed to districts based on the number of students who qualify for federal meal assistance.

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