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UPDATE: Former school chief ordered costly student coding change (with contract)

The Drop Back In Academy became an issue when Dougherty County School System officials learned last week that a coding order by the former school superintendent cost the system about $300,000. (June 1, 2013)

The Drop Back In Academy became an issue when Dougherty County School System officials learned last week that a coding order by the former school superintendent cost the system about $300,000. (June 1, 2013)

ALBANY -- Dougherty County School System IT Support Application Specialist Mary Barkley confirmed Saturday that former Superintendent Joshua Murfree instructed her to change student coding to the state Department of Education that resulted in the district unexpectedly paying an additional $275,000 to Alternatives Unlimited Inc. for its Drop Back In Academy.

The Drop Back In Academy is designed to reach students ages 16-21 who are high school dropouts and help them earn credits they need to graduate from high school.

The program is free to the student and is paid for by taking 90 percent of the state FTE (full-time equivalent) funding of $2,796 per traditional high school student. The school district was to receive the remaining 10 percent of the FTE funding.

The contract approved by the School Board last August, however, stipulated a rate of $4,541, which is the rate the state reimburses for alternative school students.

The contract reads: "It is understood that students assigned to AU will be funded by the State of Georgia as an alternative program. Alternative programs are funded at a higher rate than QBE (Quality Basic Education) funding. The current alternative ration is $4,541. AU will receive 90 percent of the QBE Alternative ratio or $4,087 per student. The Dougherty County School System will retain 10 percent of the QBE alternative rate."

RECODING COSTS DCSS

According to DCSS Finance Director Ken Dyer, Murfree, after hearing from his high school principals, made the conscious decision to categorize the students who were attending the school as traditional students, which changed the level of FTE funding provided by the state.

AU finished the past school year with an enrollment of 204 and received three checks from the DCSS totaling $860,000, $584,000 of which was paid by the state. Not only did the student recoding result in an overspending of $275,000, it also cost the system nearly $30,000 in its share of FTE funding.

According to Dyer, Murfree ordered the change because the principals were concerned that the grades earned as alternative students would trickle back to their zoned high schools. If the students were classified as traditional, the grades would remain with AU as a separate educational identity.

"I don't think the superintendent fully understood the financial implications of the recoding," Dyer said.

Murfree, who could not be reached for comment, pushed through the contract in August with vigorous attention paid by board member Darrel Ealum, who was concerned the system would lose money on the endeavor.

Ealum insisted on an addendum to the contract which read: "It is further understood that state funding may vary by funding codes depending on the type of student enrolled. Notwithstanding any changes in funding, the Dougherty County School System shall be obligated to fund AU at no more than 90 percent of allocated funds for each student."

Ealum was incensed to learn of the overpayment at last week's School Board meeting.

"Ken Dyer's independent decision to overpay AU by $300,000 in taxpayers' dollars without board knowledge and without board approval was an egregious decision that must be addressed," he said.

SCHOOL SYSTEM'S ERROR

Asked if the system considered litigation against AU, School Board Attorney Tommy Coleman said, "My advice to Ken was I thought the judge would rule in favor of the company rather than the school system."

Coleman said when the district made the first payment to AU of $300,000, system officials implicitly acknowledged the contract's validity.

"No language in the contract, including the clause Darrel wanted, protects the School Board from its own error," said Coleman.

Coleman added that had Dyer not sent AU a final payment of $430,041 on Jan. 18, the district could have possibly negotiated a settlement with the company.

"This is the first time I've heard that we could have possibly negotiated a settlement with AU," Dyer said. "Mr. Coleman never before mentioned that to me."

As far as AU goes, program director Levi Williams was also taken aback.

"I'm as surprised as anyone by this turn of events. We followed the letter of the contract to the T," Williams said. "I even moved my family here from Florida. I don't know what to think right now."

The School Board is expected to discuss the issue again at its next meeting. System officials also are looking at the possibility of administering the program in-house.