Staff members describe a fearful atmosphere during Dallemand’s tenure

jmink@macon.comMarch 3, 2014 

  • Superintendent Steve Smith answered media questions about the Bibb Schools audit and any forthcoming proseuciton Monday.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story needs clarification. Former Bibb County Superintendent Romain Dallemand ordered more than $26 million in technology equipment and services without required board approval, according to the audit. Some purchase orders were later reduced or voided, leaving about $20 million in issued contracts. Below is a corrected version.

Interim Superintendent Steve Smith remembers when he took the helm of Bibb County schools. Some district-level employees, he said, commented it was the first time they had heard laughter in the system’s central office in a long time.

There was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation during the last six months of former Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s tenure, which helped him repeatedly violate spending policies, staff members said Monday during a called meeting. Now, a prosecutor will decide whether an investigation of Dallemand’s actions -- or prosecution -- is warranted.

A recent audit says that from July to December 2012, Dallemand ordered more than $26 million in technology equipment and services without required board approval. The audit also criticizes spending related to the Macon Promise Neighborhood project.

Now, the state attorney general will appoint a special prosecutor. District Attorney David Cooke requested the state’s involvement because of his prior agreement to serve on the Champions’ Board of the Promise Center, Cooke said.

“Since the Promise Center is one of the items at issue in the audit, it would not be proper for me to decide whether or not criminal charges are appropriate in this case,” he said. “Therefore, I have requested that a neutral third party be appointed to make whatever decisions need to be made in this case.”

Smith met with the officials Monday, giving them information from the audit.

‘We’ve turned it over to their team, and I have the utmost confidence ... for them to make the decision that needs to be made in terms of whether it warrants an investigation or not,” Smith said. Whether Dallemand’s actions were criminal, “that’s not for me to decide. I don’t know,” Smith said. “I know there was a violation of ethics. I know there were violations of policies.”

Smith also plans to file a report with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission within the next 10 days. Dallemand’s actions over the six months in question were an abuse of power, and taxpayers and district staff were victims, Smith said.

That abuse ranged from threats to in-house investigations, which intimidated employees and paved the way for Dallemand to spend money the way he wanted, staff members said. They said they were told not to communicate with the board of education, and they were in constant fear of losing their jobs or being demoted.

“It just goes to show you what can take place when you have an abuse of power and decisions are made beyond the scope of the typical employee in the school system,” Smith said. “I don’t really blame the school system. I think the people in the school system, like Mr. Ron Collier (the system’s chief financial officer), blew the whistle and yelled and said there were some things going on that probably shouldn’t have been going on. It took a while to get to the bottom of it.”

‘A real wrong has been done’

Collier was demoted after he voiced concerns in July 2012 about writing a $1 million check without following the proper procedures, he said.

“I was called at home and told (under) no uncertain terms that if I did not have this check prepared for $1 million, that he would find himself another CFO,” Collier said. “That’s where it all started.”

Dallemand launched an investigation of Collier, which ended when the money was sent, and no one has seen the results of the investigation, Collier said. To Collier and others, it’s clear the investigation was staged to keep Collier out of the way, he said.

“It doesn’t take a DA or a U.S. attorney to understand the logic of all this. A real wrong has been done in this community, and it’s not just one person, by the way,” Collier said.

Sharon Roberts, director of accounting, said she endured similar pressures. On Dec. 10, 2012, when Roberts was out sick, her entire staff was called into the board room, where they were secluded for hours and probed about Roberts and Collier. When she returned to work, Roberts received a letter saying her duties had changed, and she was locked out of the computer system she generally used, she said.

After Roberts answered questions from a board attorney, Dallemand called her into his office, asking her if she was prepared for the upcoming board meeting. When Roberts told him she had no access to her files, Dallemand responded that had been a mistake, she said.

“That was part of that fear and that coercion that all of the central office was going through,” she said. “We didn’t know from day to day what access we would have, whether we would be let go, what was going on. Mr. Collier had just been demoted ... it’s even hard to describe what the feeling was. We were all just shocked. We were shocked that it was allowed to happen and that nobody stopped it from happening.”

When her staff heard the school board had bought out Dallemand’s contract for $350,000 plus benefits, they were “hurt” and “confused,” Roberts said.

“Because of the terms of it,” she said. “Not because he was leaving, but because of the terms.”

At the time, it was a tough decision for the school board. The feeling was that the board needed to cut its losses and move on, Smith said.

“But I do agree that ... when you look back, the nine violations of exceeding your spending authority and not securing board approval prior to purchases would certainly more than adequately provide documentation for termination,” Smith said. “And I think that’s probably what hurts the system.”

Additionally, Roberts and her staff were not allowed to communicate with the school board, she said. In several cases, the school board approved the contracts months after they were issued, the audit says.

Some board members have said they had no knowledge of the violations at the time, and they later ratified the contracts on the advice of their attorneys. One former board member told The Telegraph that he and others had suspicions, but no one would listen to them. The records show the board approved some of the purchasing orders with a 5-3 vote. Others -- most likely on the four occasions when attorneys advised them to do so -- were approved with an 8-0 vote, Smith said. Attorneys say they gave that advice because the purchasing contracts already had been made, and they were trying to avoid possible litigation due to a breach of contract, Smith said.

Since then, changes have been made, including a $100,000 cap for superintendent spending, governance training for the school board and the hiring of a director of procurement.

Now, the school board is operating better as a team, the climate has improved and officials must take on the “diligent task” of restoring community confidence, Smith said. Board members are in the process of selecting a new superintendent.

“If you think back to where the wheels came off the track, that was when you hired the superintendent,” Smith said. “I think we need to learn from that experience.”

Writer Oby Brown contributed to this report. To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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