Limited audit shows big problems at Darton State College

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: Interim President Paul Jones has important role in positioning Darton for the future

A business, including one operated by a government, has to do the basics of proper bookkeeping.

From the results of a three-month audit of Darton State College that was conducted last year, that, sadly, doesn’t appear to be the case. It also should generate concern as to what else might be awry should a more intensive audit covering a longer period be ordered by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

As it stands, the three-month study shows a pattern of operation that, in the most charitable assessment, was lax in its accountability. While the abrupt forced resignation of Peter Sireno, the long-time president of the college, caught many in the community by surprise in late October, the report dated Dec. 10 clearly shows that high-level changes were needed at Darton to get the school back in compliance with rules and regulations.

One of the most concerning revelations in the audit report, which was dated Dec. 10, involved the college’s failure to follow and document the performance of students receiving federal financial aid. With funding as tight as it is these days, failure to ensure that those who receive financial aid are qualified is unpardonable. The executive summary of the report, which was first reported Wednesday evening on our website, www.albanyherald.com, stated that the monitoring process employed by Darton officials for financial students for four semesters from fall 2011 through fall 2012 were incorrect. As a result, as much as $894,000 in federal financial aid for that four-semester period alone may have been inappropriately awarded to as many as 189 students.

Now, we would hope that the vast majority of those students performed at a level entitling them to the money. But Darton State has to notify the U.S. Department of Education about the potential over-awards, which means the college is now on the federal agency’s radar. It could cost the college considerably if it is required to repay inappropriately awarded aid to the federal government. In its response, Darton officials stated that they have implemented the needed change to the college’s Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) policy and has contracted with a consultant to get the Financial Aid Office technologically prepared to implement best practices.

It was also concerning to see that $592,000 in funds from local hospitals that were earmarked for nursing stipends in the mid- to late 2000s were not spent for that purpose, but rather held for a future undetermined but potentially related use while state funds were used to cover the stipends. After the fieldwork for the audit report, the money was returned to the state treasury as surplus funds.

The biggest problem here is the college’s reputation. When a donation is made to a college or university for a stated purpose and the institution agrees by accepting the funds, its reputation takes a hit when it doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Darton officials will now have to convince donors that their contributions are being used as agreed, adding an unnecessary hurdle to the already difficult job of raising money for projects and programs.

These and other aspects of the report show that the interim president, Paul Jones, has a great deal of work to do to get Darton into a position where the business end of the college is functioning properly. We doubt that Chancellor Hank Huckaby would have appointed Jones to this position without full confidence that he could handle and correct the issues that had been discovered, as well as those that might arise. Jones’ work is critical to the future of Darton, whether it continues to be the standalone college it is now or part of a rumored Southwest Georgia regional university. In either event, when a permanent president is appointed, he or she should have every confidence that business has been taken care of and that proper procedures are not only in place, but meticulously being followed.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board