School system breaks policies in plush digs - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

School system breaks policies in plush digs

Sherwood Acres marks the highest bill for office ornamentation, at  $10,044. Sherwood Acres marks the highest bill for office ornamentation, at $10,044.
Superintendent Dr. Salley Whatley says they want to "Reflect a level of professionalism that sometimes people don't necessarily expect..." Superintendent Dr. Salley Whatley says they want to "Reflect a level of professionalism that sometimes people don't necessarily expect..."
This plate goes nicely with other decor displayed in the double credenza in one school. This plate goes nicely with other decor displayed in the double credenza in one school.

February 4, 2005

Albany-- At Robert Cross Middle School, students socialize and even study on a canopied sidewalk while they wait to load buses and head home.

It's one of the perks of a new school; perks that even show up in reception and administration areas.

"They wanted it to reflect a level of professionalism that sometimes people don't necessarily expect from us as educators," Whatley said.

But do people expect educators to spend $33,712 decorating the administrative offices of four schools? And that doesn't include office furniture and equipment. That cost was built into the original budget.

We learned that some questions were being raised about how much money was being spent on office decor. So we filed a freedom of information request. And we got all the bills for all the decorations.

At Robert Cross Middle School, pictures on the wall cost $189 each. For all four, the cost was $756. And on the shelves, decorative jars that cost $65. The final bill was $8,541.

At Albany Middle School, four pictures cost $396 and the shelves hold high-priced accessories like lion head bookends that cost $75 each. The total there was $4,795.

So we dug a little deeper to see how much other schools were spending on office decorations. When renovations were completed at Sherwood Elementary, the offices were also decorated with beautiful accessories and even some furniture, like two accent chairs that were $399 each. Sherwood's total bill was the highest so far at $10,044.

When we looked at renovated Radium Springs Elementary School, we found most of the money here went for decorative pictures, like these two that cost $598 dollars, and several furniture pieces like a credenza for $549. When decorating the offices at Radium Springs Elementary was finished the bill was the highest of all the schools we looked at with a total of $10,330.

Dougherty County School Board member David Maschke questions the money spent.

"I think that the actual dollar amount is one item that I questioned because of what was being purchased," Maschke said.

We asked Superintendent Sally Whatley, could they have spent less?

"That's honestly something that I can't guarantee you one way or the other," Whatley said.

Whether you agree that the school offices should be decorated for thousands of dollars per school, we all come to expect the spending of public money to get proper approvals. Here's what we found out about the school system spending policies.

Two schools used activity funds. According to activity funds policy "Competitive bids are required for purchases of $500." For the $8,541 spent at Robert Cross Middle school and the $4,795 spent at Albany Middle school, there was no bidding; a clear violation of the school system's bidding policy.

The other two schools got the vast majority of their decorating money from Sales tax. According to the school system policy for spending that money; "For single purchases and contracts in excess of $5,000, bids shall be invited..." For the $10,044 spent at Sherwood and the $10,330 spent at Radium Springs, again there was no bidding and again violating the school system's own bidding policy.

Sherwood Elementary also spent $3,255 out of its activity funds. Add that to the sales tax money spent on the school and that school had the highest total of more than $13,299.

"There is no question in my mind too much was paid for items that were purchased and that I think goes back to the problem where things weren't bid," Maschke said.

The violation of school policies in these decoration projects led the school board to order school board attorney Tommy Coleman to investigate because they knew failure to get bids could look bad for the school system.

"Certainly if it appeared to the board members, it would appear to the public as well that there was an appearance of impropriety here and we want to avoid that," he said.

The investigation revealed the violations of the bid policy since all $33,712 dollars was spent at Betsy's Fabrics and Interiors in Albany with no bid required. But Coleman says while errors were made, there was no financial motivation.

"It doesn't appear from anything that I can find that any member of staff or board or anybody, personally, financially had any reward arising out of this."

To some, $33,712 for some pictures, jars and decorative plates seems like a small portion of the millions of dollars the school board oversees.

"It's all taxpayer money," Maschke said. "We need to be just as responsible controlling the relatively small amounts of funds as we are when we're spending large amounts of money."

We also learned a school system employee who works with Betsy's Interiors on the side, did the decorating job. That too, is against school policy. The investigation showed she apparently didn't profit from the work, but she won't be doing any more decorating for the school system.

There will be no punitive action taken against those who violated the school system policy. But the school system says they will follow the bidding policy in the future.

"As we move forward we'll ensure that those things don't happen again," Whatley said.

"And that corrective actions are being taken shows that the board and the administration are serious about doing things correctly," Maschke said.

As serious about spending your money correctly as they are about teaching your children well.

updated at 9:3AM by brannon.stewart@walb.com