Mercer University officials worked Thursday night to reassure the Bibb County school board that the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative is already a success, despite not receiving millions of dollars in federal money.
The meeting came just four days after a Telegraph report that looked into the school districts financial commitments to the program and found a lack of financial oversight of the project from the full board.
Several dozen community partners, including the school district and the university, banded together last year to create the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative. The project received a $500,000 federal planning grant in December 2011 to begin work on programs that would improve the lives of students and families attending school at Ingram-Pye and Hartley elementary schools, as well as at Ballard-Hudson Middle and Southwest high schools.
During this planning grant period, we didnt simply plan, said Mary Alice Morgan, a Mercer professor who is involved with the grant. She said Promise Neighborhood programs already are in place and making a difference in students lives.
Students in Macons Unionville and Tindall Heights neighborhoods, she said, have been benefitting academically from the work Mercer University, Bibb County schools and other community partners have put in place in the past year through early work with the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative.
An example of the programs early success, officials said, is that nearly all students in a mentoring and tutoring program at Ingram-Pye Elementary were promoted to the next grade.
Within the past year, 21 students at Southwest High participated in a yearlong internship and mentoring program, and those students are on track to graduate, compared to about 50 percent of their peers.
Peter Brown, a Mercer professor who is working on the grant with Morgan, also announced at Thursdays school board meeting that a school-based health clinic will open at Ingram-Pye, thanks to a separate $500,000 grant that medical organization First Choice Primary Inc. received through the Department of Health and Human Resources.
The clinic will serve those in the community as well as at Ingram-Pye.
This is a tremendous breakthrough, Brown said.
The partnership of community groups unsuccessfully sought a $28.5 million implementation grant that would help fund things such as tutoring and health care services.
Cliffard Whitby, executive director of Macon Promise Neighborhood, said the community is committed to improving the neighborhood, federal grant or not. It was never all about the grant, Whitby said. It was about changing this community.
Brown told school board members that he and others planned to give a monthly update to the board about the Promise Neighborhood initiative.
The Mercer representatives said they would be more successful in getting the millions from the federal government in their second try this year if they show theyre making an active effort in the initiative.
Lots of good things are happening, he said. We want to make sure the board is fully aware of them.
After the Mercer teams updates, school board attorneys Patrick Millsaps and Randy Howard addressed the board, expressing their objections to Sundays Telegraph story about the districts financial commitments to the initiative.
That story explored the school systems involvement in a federal Promise Neighborhood grant. The Bibb County school system was among dozens of community partners that applied for the $28.5 million grant.
The Telegraph found that Bibb County school leaders committed millions of dollars in cash and in-kind work to the project without full oversight. Also, the grant is at the heart of a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by Ron Collier, former school system chief financial officer. In his lawsuit, he claims he was placed under investigation and demoted for asking questions about writing a $1 million check to one of the Promise Neighborhood partners -- Central Georgia Partnership for Individual and Community Development, the organization that owns the building that will be used for some of the initiatives programs.
Millsaps said the story took statements from him out of context and questioned his integrity. He said Thursday that attorneys discussed and answered questions from the board about the systems financial obligations with the project at an Oct. 18 meeting.
When the legal organ ... reports that mine or Randys integrity should be questioned, it is time to make a public statement, Millsaps told the board.
Howard also said he thought his integrity was questioned in the article.
Its all about the children for me, Howard said.
In other matters, the board received a clean, unqualified audit from Miller Edwards, an accountant from the Mauldin & Jenkins firm.
Currently, the school system has a fund balance of about $24 million, which could sustain the school system for about six weeks. Ideally, the district would have about two to three months of reserves on hand.
Your fund balance is reasonable but not anything to brag about, Edwards said.
Edwards also pointed to management issues related to the Promise grant, specifically a June resolution in which the board agreed to give the superintendent and board president the authority to enter into agreements on behalf of the board, as well as a 10-year lease agreement signed in July by former board President Tommy Barnes that didnt go to the board before a vote.