One thing was clear during court testimony about the proposed Macon Promise Neighborhood program last week: Some Bibb County school board members had no idea how much the school system had committed to the community improvement initiative.
The program would be based in a former school building that workers are now transforming into the Macon Promise Center. Sue Sipe, the school boards acting president, testified Feb. 1 that she thought the school systems lease for the Promise Center -- a 10-year commitment by the system and its taxpayers -- would be nominal, like a dollar. She eventually learned the lease would actually cost the system $5.75 million over that decade.
And Sipe wasnt alone. Other board members tell The Telegraph that the board has never been told that the total commitment to the Macon Promise Neighborhood plan actually grew to more than $29 million from the boards initial authorization of up to $10 million, including in-kind contributions.
The idea behind Macon Promise Neighborhood was to leverage existing school system programs with the work of more than 30 partner agencies to build a vibrant, multi-faceted program that would help families in high-poverty areas help students do better in school. Organizers hoped to get a five-year, $28.5 million federal grant that would pay for community services, many of them at the Promise Center, ranging from tutoring and counseling to health and safety services. Macon Promise Neighborhood did not get the federal grant when winners were announced in December, but plans to try again.
This past July, a month after the school board had authorized that $10 million ceiling, Superintendent Romain Dallemand committed $19.4 million in matching funds without a separate vote from the full school board.
Months later, in October, a school system attorney, Andrea Jolliffe, told the board that its commitment had reached about $19 million. Board members were asked to sign off on a document that also tied in $1 million for construction work, the $5.75 million lease and $3.25 million in upkeep over 10 years through an agreement -- a memorandum of understanding -- that made sure the school districts money would be spent on educational purposes, as state law requires. That document included just $9.4 million in in-kind resources, however.
What the lawyers didnt say -- and the board didnt know -- is that the school system had already committed $19.4 million in in-kind funding, and it was about to complete a $10 million cash commitment to lease and renovate the Promise Center.
Jolliffe and Patrick Millsaps, another school board attorney, presented a document showing a total commitment of $19.4 million, including the $10 million in cash for rent, upkeep and construction. Another $10 million of in-kind resources was not listed.
With the boards approval of that document, the total commitment had actually reached $29.4 million -- nearly triple what the board had authorized in June.
About two-thirds of the financial commitment involves in-kind contributions, such as nearly $9.9 million in federal Title I money to help poor children, as well as the cost of school counselors already being funded that could be counted for credit -- matching funds -- in the grant application.
The $10 million in cash -- at the heart of a lawsuit filed by former Chief Financial Officer Ron Collier -- wasnt actually part of the school systems portion of the grant application. It was extra money, and some school board members say they never expected that much cash to be pledged toward the grant.
Peter Brown, one of two Mercer University employees who filed the grant proposal this past summer, confirmed that the whole of the school systems contribution toward the grant application -- $19,364,499 -- was to have been made entirely from existing in-kind funds. Mercer University acted as fiscal agent for the application.
The Telegraph showed Brown a copy of the school boards October memorandum, which said the board was pledging $10 million cash and $9,364,499 in in-kind contributions.
Thats just wrong, said Brown, who started shaking his head. Thats just wrong.
A disconnect on the commitment
The school board never voted on the full $29.4 million commitment. In an article last month, The Telegraph reported, based on those school system documents, that the board had approved a $19.4 million commitment to the Macon Promise Neighborhood program that was a mix of cash and in-kind funding. But the total obligation was actually 52 percent greater.
The $10 million in cash from the school system is destined for the Promise Center and its owner, the Central Georgia Partnership for Individual and Community Development Inc. The partnership claimed a credit on the grant application for its building, but none of the school systems cash was part of the application. The $5.75 million, 10-year lease was signed the same day that the grant application was filed.
The grant application doubled the school systems commitment. The lease obligation moved the commitment well beyond that.
On June 27, the school board had pledged up to $1 million a year for a decade from its existing programs, resources, current-budgeted funds, and related in-kind contributions ... for the purposes of supporting the (Macon Promise Neighborhood) initiative and act as matching requirements for the (federal) grant. The board authorized officials to sign letters, leases, contracts and other kinds of agreements, provided, however, that no such documents shall act to bind the Board of Education beyond those Resource Commitment Amounts.
Dallemands commitment a month later of $19,364,499 in match resources to implement solutions in the project did not specify whether the money was coming from in-kind matches, cash -- or both. Either way, it was more money than the school board had authorized.
A week after Dallemands pledge, then-school board President Tommy Barnes signed the school systems lease agreement with the Central Georgia Partnership, the nonprofit organization that took over the former Ballard-Hudson Middle School at 1780 Anthony Road. The school system auctioned off the school four years ago for $220,000, saying it no longer needed the property.
Octobers school board vote put $10 million in cash -- $5.75 million for rent, $3.25 million in upkeep and $1 million in construction -- into the hands of the partnership for the Promise Center. The rent money is planned to cover renovation costs of the building.
A school system auditor later criticized those transactions, saying that the school board should approve such significant actions before theyre actually executed. The auditor criticized the $19.4 million figure, but didnt mention the actual $29.4 million commitment.
Under the gun
Some board members say they were kept in the dark.
Thirty million dollars? Wow. First Ive heard that number, said Gary Bechtel, a former school board member who asked many of the questions in meetings involving Promise Neighborhood issues.
It was never delineated in any of the conversations any of the administration or any of the Promise Neighborhood representatives had with us.
School board member Lynn Farmer said shed been piecing together nuggets of information to realize the system may have made a nearly $30 million commitment. She hasnt had that number confirmed, and she doesnt know when shell get answers.
I just get the impression that nobody really knows whats going on, Farmer said. Certainly the board doesnt.
For the October board meeting, board members were initially told that a Macon Promise Neighborhood item on the agenda was for discussion only, not for voting. Board members didnt get a draft copy of the agreement in advance, and they were never given a copy of the lease or other supporting paperwork.
Board members asked questions for about 20 minutes during the meeting, then voted on the proposal.
School system officials have not responded to repeated requests for comments or explanations. Officials denied earlier requests, citing pending legal action. Jolliffe said this week that she was seeking school system permission to discuss the $29.4 million figure.
Other school board members have declined comment or did not return calls from The Telegraph during previous reporting on the Macon Promise Neighborhood plan.
Board member Tom Hudson said Thursday, I have no comments in reference to that. Its under litigation.
In the end, the school systems total commitment of $29.4 million toward the Macon Promise Neighborhood plan wasnt fully committed to the grant application. The $10 million cash was never put in the application, and some of the matching funding wasnt fully needed.
Other partners in the program had pledged $20 million, so the initial school board authorization of up to $10 million would have met the needed community match of $28.5 million. The school system committed so much money in cash and in-kind funding that it alone could have matched the grant without help from its dozens of partners. (Brown said he had asked the school system to expand its pledge at one point because he was worried that the other partners wouldnt find enough money.)
The grant application was due months earlier than anyone had expected, leaving about two months to plan and write the application, Brown said.
In the haste, the school system found the full $19,364,499 in its in-kind contributions, according to a spreadsheet Brown provided to The Telegraph. But the actual grant application narrative sent by school officials accounted for only about one-quarter of those dollars. Title I money alone accounted for about $9.9 million of in-kind matching funds but was never explained in the application itself.
Brown said of the grant application: Its much sloppier than I would have liked. But we were under the gun.
Brown said he didnt review what the school system gave him, and he doesnt know who in the school system knew about the in-kind pledge of $19.4 million in the final rush.
We got this (application) in literally 45 minutes before the 4:30 (p.m.) deadline, he said.
Judges decisions coming
The $1 million for the Promise Center construction is at the heart of a dispute between Collier and Dallemand, with the superintendent ordering his then-chief financial officer to write a check months before there was an agreement on how to spend it.
The Central Georgia Partnership sent a $1 million invoice weeks before it even had a lease agreement -- and months before the boards October vote that determined what the $1 million would pay for.
Dallemand told Collier in writing on July 25, two days before the grant application was due, that the Central Georgia Partnership had sent a $1 million invoice and owned the building where the Macon Promise Neighborhoods program would be housed.
The MPN application for the U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhoods Implementation Grant, as fully endorsed by the Board, must be submitted by July 27, 2012, together with evidence of receipt of all demonstrated local match funds, Dallemand wrote.
Collier wrote back to Dallemand the next day, saying federal instructions were simply to show the availability of the money, not to actually transfer it. Collier also worried in writing that such a payment could violate state law. A day later, the grant application went to federal authorities without any of the cash commitment.
Collier has filed a whistle-blower suit against the school system and is seeking an injunction to stop the Promise Center lease.
A Bibb County judge hasnt said when hell rule on Colliers request. The school system has to respond to the rest of Colliers lawsuit by Feb. 22.
The first rent payment is due by April 1.
To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 744-4331. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.