ALBANY, Ga. — The Georgia Department of Education is investigating the Dougherty County School System's Free and Reduced Lunch program, citing doubts that the numbers provided by the system are accurate.
At stake are possibly millions in federal Title I and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding which is based on the number of children in a district who qualify for free or reduced lunches. According to data submitted to the state, more than 82 percent of the district's 16,343 students qualified for free or reduced-cost meals.
The investigation was first reported Tuesday on albanyherald.com.
"We had a complaint in regard to FRM (free and reduced meal) applications from Dougherty County." Title I Programs Director Margo DeLaune said Tuesday. "And based on that complaint and what we've been reading in the paper, we weren't 100 percent positive that the count we received from the district for FY 2012 was entirely accurate." Fiscal Year 2012 ended Saturday.
The state education department sent a five-member investigative team, including DeLaune, to Albany on May 24 for a meeting with Dougherty School Superintendent Joshua Murfree, Title I Director Betty Graper and Child Nutrition Services Director Vanessa Hayes.
After arriving at the school administration building, however, DeLaune and the complaint investigation team were denied access to system employee lunch applications by Murfree and Hayes, according to state officials.
The denial prompted this response from the GADOE on June 4: "Dougherty County's Superintendent and Nutrition Director denied the Complaint Investigation team access to any Free or Reduced Priced Meal data or applications in order for the GADOE Complaint Investigation Team to determine if FRM counts were accurate in determining Dougherty County's Title I, Part A and Special Education IDEA allocations for FY2011 and FY12.
"In addition, the interview with Dougherty's Title I Cooordinator determined that Dougherty County's Title I, Part A allocations for FY11 and FY12 have not been reviewed to determine if ... the allocations will need to be adjusted to an accurate figure due to inaccurate FRM counts."
Murfree said Tuesday that the investigative team was not denied any access.
"During the one-day visit, the invesigative team requested information that is not collected by the school system," Murfree said. "I made it clear to the team that the system will provide whatever information was needed and assigned system child nutrition, business and finance and federal programs leaders the task of gathering any documentation requested by the team."
Murfree said he cleared up the matter in a phone call to DuLaune on Tuesday.
"I spoke with Ms. DuLaune today about the letter of June 4, which contained a paragraph about the superintendent and child nutrition director denying access to FRM data or applications," Murfree said. "Ms. Dulaune acknowledged that access wasn't denied, but that information, along with requested information concerning the children of school employees, would have to be collected as we have no database of that information.
"Ms. DuLaune said the paragraph was the way she had to state the concern because I am the superintendent."
The state education department sent a letter on Friday to Murfree and School Board Chairman James Bush, reminding the school district of U.S. Department of Agriculture privacy rules, which state in part: "Verification for cause must not be used to automatically verify the households of all school district employees who qualify for FRM. However, from among the list of children approved for free or reduced price meals, an LEA (local education agency) could identify children of school district employees and use LEA salary information available to them to identify questionable applications and then conduct verifications for cause on those questionable applications."
The letter warned Murfree and Bush that "failure to resolve this impasse could result in the GaDOE placing a hold on (Title I and IDEA) funds until this important issue is resolved."
In FY 2012 the DCSS received approximately $8.3 million in Title I funds and $3.2 million in Special Education IDEA funds.
Murfree said the district will respond to the state's letter soon.