ALBANY — The Dougherty County School Board emerged from an hour-long executive session Wednesday and suspended Morningside Elementary Principal Gloria Baker for 15 days without pay for her role in obtaining free lunches for her child for the past three years.
Gathered at a special meeting called by Supt. Joshua Murfree, the Board accepted his suspension recommendation by a 4-3 vote.
Board members David Maschke, Anita Williams-Brown, Milton Griffin and Velvet Riggins voted for the suspension; Darrel Ealum, Carol Tharin and Chairman James Bush voted against.
“I was surprised by the decision,” Bush said. “Each member has his or her own opinion and that’s the way they voted. I couldn’t vote for that (the recommendation).”
Ealum was stunned by the turn of events.
“Yes, I was shocked by the decision,” said Ealum, who felt the punishment should have been more severe. “The hearing today was not about criminality of the school principal. The hearing was about her lack of professionalism and the level of accountability that we as a board should expect from someone in her position.”
School System attorney Tommy Coleman said Baker will be informed of her suspension, and she has the choice to accept it or to appeal for a hearing before the Board.
The Board can then uphold, reduce or dismiss the suspension.
When the allegations surfaced, Baker was originally suspended five days with pay.
“I went into the hearing with an open mind, the only information I had was what I gathered from the media,” Maschke said on his vote to approve the 15-day suspension. “Based on the evidence that was presented during the executive session, I felt his (Murfree) recommendation was reasonable with the information we have.”
Baker and her husband, Chester, were booked and released last Thursday from the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Office downtown on charges of making false statements to obtain free school lunches for their child, despite her $90,500 annual salary.
The Bakers remain free on $3,000 bond each.
“The investigation is still ongoing,” Maschke said. “This is just the close of a chapter. The full book has yet to be written.”
Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said Wednesday he was waiting on a final report from the DCSS Police investigation, adding once he receives the report he’ll evaluate the evidence and determine how to proceed.
Baker has been with the school system since 1980 and was promoted to assistant principal in 1993. She was promoted to principal at Albany Middle School in 2004 and was assigned to Morningside earlier this year.
Documents obtained by The Herald from the Dougherty County School System show roughly 81 percent of the 16,000 students who in the School System are in a free or reduced-fee lunch program.
According to the application for free or reduced lunches, anyone who receives benefits from other USDA programs like SNAP or TANF are eligible for the program, as are most foster children. Children can get free meals if “your household’s gross income is within the free limits on the federal income guidelines.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture income eligibility guidelines adopted for July 1, 2011, state that for a household of three, the income cap is $24,089 per year before taxes.