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No local wrongdoing found in 21st Century program audit

Local education leaders aren't sure what a state audit means to the future of the 21st Century after school program, but they are hopeful that local students will see little impact.

Meanwhile, a state official said the Georgia Department of Audits findings were focused only at the state level and should not be construed to show any wrongdoing at the local level. The audit report, released last week, found that certain 21st Century programs - including those in McDuffie and Richmond counties - were funded by grants they should not have received. In all, 54 after-school programs were affected in the audit.

John Thornton, the director of the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts State Government Division who oversaw the 21st Century audit, said that although the report shows McDuffie County was one of the recipients of money not qualified for, no local officials were involved in the wrong-doing.

We tried to state in the report clearly that it appears to all be at the state level, he said.

McDuffie County received $276,396 and Richmond County received $529,700 - both amounts they were not qualified to receive based on a scoring of the school system's applications. On the other hand, Warren County received $73,200 less than they were supposed to, and the City of Harlem received none of the $600,000 they qualified for.

McDuffie County has a 21st Century program at all four elementary schools and Thomson Middle School. The program is funded by federal grants administered through the state Department of Education and provides academic enrichment opportunities and activities to students during non-school hours.

McDuffie Program Coordinator Lucy Linnenkohl said the grant listed in the audit was for the program at Maxwell Elementary School during the 2006-07 year. Under the program, school systems submit expenses and are reimbursed through the grant proceeds, according to Mr. Thornton.

For Ms. Linnenkohl and McDuffie County School Superintendent Mark Petersen, the big concern now is how the findings of the audit will affect the future of Maxwell Elementary's after school program.

If we didn't have it, then the children would go home to an empty home, Dr. Petersen said. And they'd be hungry, because they eat snacks at 21st Century. I think it benefits our whole community.

Mr. Thornton said the state department of education has already put in a request with federal education officials to continue the grants for the upcoming fiscal year.

It is still being talked about and considered, he said. The question is whether they can re-bid after completing only two years of the five-year cycle. But it is yet to be decided.

Although her funds were under-paid according to the audit report, Warren County Superintendent Carole Jean Carey shares the same concern.

At this point, I haven't heard if it will hurt us, she said. I hope they did won't mess it up for all of us.

The state audit singles out three state employees who are accused of manipulating the Century 21 grant process to funnel money to non-profit, community-based organizations. Georgia Department of Education spokesperson Dana Tofig said the three employees implicated in the audit no longer work for the Department of Education, but could not comment as to why because the matter is under a separate investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office.

Now, state auditors are taking a look at the relationships between school systems and non-profit, community-based organizations across the state.

We did a scan of those vendors, and we didn't find any connection of school boards dealing with the non-profit organizations, said Director of Georgia Education Audits Ron Watson. We will continue to look more deeply into it. We consider it a high-risk program, and will put more audit effort into our school boards.

Web posted on Thursday, January 31, 2008

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