Although not illegal, nearly $20,000 in federal grant money intended for vocational education was instead set aside by a school secretary to pay herself for performing clerical duties involved with the grant, officials say.
James Thompson, the interim superintendent for Richmond County schools, said he not only stopped the grant supplements, but also is reviewing other grants and drafting a policy to provide more oversight.
"At this point, it is apparent, based on the evidence, there was no criminal intent to do wrong, nor was there any criminal act committed," Mr. Thompson wrote in a memo responding to an open records request filed by The Augusta Chronicle. "In fact," he wrote, "the Career-Technical Secretary was up front and open throughout the entire process."
Mr. Thompson acknowledged in an interview, however, that it probably wasn't the best use of the grant, which was meant to serve vocational students. The pay raise was out of line and not proportionate to the work she did with the grant, he said.
The most recent Georgia Department of Education records show the secretary is paid $24,684 and has been working in Richmond County for seven years.
According to the Carl D. Perkins grant application, the funding must be used to "improve vocational and technical education programs."
Once the grant was awarded to the school system, the secretary developed a budget, which included money to supplement her salary, Mr. Thompson's memo states. This budget was approved by the Georgia Department of Education.
The secretary - not named in the memo - discovered, however, that she was allowed up to 5 percent of the grant to cover administrative costs, so she raised her pay and submitted an amended budget, which also was approved by the state, according to Mr. Thompson.
According to his memo, she even questioned state officials about how much could be used to fund clerical salaries before assigning a portion for her pay. The grant allows up to 5 percent to be used for this purpose. The grant totaled more than $400,000 for each of the years in question.
For 16 months, the school system's payroll department had to override its procedures because her pay exceeded the pay scale of her position.
For the first couple of months, she gave herself $416.67 over her regular pay each month. That was raised to $833.34 for the next two months. For the next year, she raised it to $1,416.67 a month, according to Mr. Thompson.
He said he became aware of the secretary's enhanced pay "shortly after" taking over as interim superintendent Nov. 1.
"No one condones the lack of process followed in this case," Mr. Thompson wrote in his memo. "While the secretary was above board throughout the application process, it is reasonable to assume she should have known a more formal approval was needed."
School board member Frank Dolan, who serves as the school board's finance chairman, said the situation demonstrates "extraordinarily poor judgment" on the part of the secretary and her supervisors.
"Now that this has seen the light of day, I am certain we are going to tighten measures," the businessman said, calling the lack of controls "highly unusual."
"But I can promise you this is coming to a screeching halt as soon as we get our hands around this one," he said.
Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interim Superintendent James Thompson will make policy recommendations to the Richmond County Board of Education to provide better oversight of grant money. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. March 8 at the board's central offices, 864 Broad St.