Documents: Albany Teachers received incentives, but likely not for cheating (update with comment from school system)

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga.: After an analysis of thousands of financial records from schools in Dougherty County, documents have been found that show that at least 10 area schools had staff and student incentive programs but little suggests that funds were spent to reward teachers for performance on the CRCT exams.

Both the Atlanta Public School System and the Dougherty County School System are under investigation by a special prosecutor appointed by former Governor Sonny Perdue to determine whether unusually high numbers of wrong-to-right erasure marks on the Criterion Reference Competency Tests, or CRCT's, are indications of widespread cheating.

As part of a request made under the Georgia Open Records Act by both the Albany Herald and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the school system has released thousands of pages of financial records for schools where the tests were administered.

After reviewing the documents, the Herald found that ten schools had some type of financial incentive program in place through each school principal's activity accounts or Parent-Teacher Association accounts.

These accounts are not funded through tax dollars and the Dougherty County School System budget, but rather through private donations, fundraisers and grants. And incentive programs are not illegal, and are encouraged by the Georgia Department of Education as a means to boost moral and improve performance.

The accounts are audited by the school system through an internal auditor.

R.D. Harter, the DCSS director of communications, said that incentives for teachers are common and perfectly above board.

"Among those items funded are incentive activities that are encouraged by the State Department of Education and meant to encourage serious participation and success by the students on standardized tests," Harter said. "Money is raised and used for CRCT test celebrations and parties help focus student attention on the importance of such tests. These can include items like ice cream, party trinkets or games, pizza parties, punch and chips. Similar incentives are used in many schools across the state to reward test attendance and participation."

According to the Herald's review, Albany Middle School, Jackson Heights Elementary, Lincoln Magnet, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary, Morningside, Northside, Radium Springs, Sherwood, Turner Elementary, and Westtown Elementary each reported accounts for staff and/or student or parent incentives.

For 2009, the total of all of the accounts -- both for staff and students --- adds up to $29,304.55. For 2010, that number increased to $39,370.61.

At issue is whether the Dougherty County schools did as has been alleged in Atlanta and paid teachers out of these accounts to either scheme to conduct the erasures or incentivized them to the degree they were willing to alter the test documents.

After reviewing the documents, only three of the schools in the Dougherty system were found to have specific earmarks in their accounts relating to CRCT performance.

At MLK, for example, a check stub labeled "teacher recognition for CRCT attendance," was listed on July 31, 2008, for $210 but was marked VOID. No corresponding entry was noted on the bank statements that were provided.

Additionally, there was a check stub for $150 on May 27, 2009, for an individual for "CRCT Incentive." Outside of those two entries, there are no other references to CRCT in MLK's financial records. As for the other staff incentives, the principal authorized the purchase of various gift cards and luncheons for staff throughout the year -- all marked as "teacher appreciation."

At Albany Middle School, there is an entry for $55 worth of pizzas from Little Caesars with receipts for students who apparently were participating in CRCT remediation. That was paid on March 19, 2009.

Westtown Elementary was the final school to note any type of incentive for CRCT incentives or rewards.

In an entry labeled "CRCT Award Incentives," on May 21, 2010, the school paid $450 for some type of recognition. On the check request form submitted to the school system, it requests that the check be made out to "Regions Bank," for "treats for K-5," for the CRCT performance, but there are no subsequent receipts or supporting documentation to show how that money was spent.

The school system, who hired their own consultant and used their own staff to conduct an internal review after the state first made the cheating allegations last year, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by its staff and standing by the improvements made by their schools on the tests.

Still, the GBI, who are working in concert with the team of special investigators, continue to interview teachers and request documents related to Dougherty County's testing results.