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DeKalb school audit found bloated salaries — then what?
By JIM WALLS
DeKalb County schools paid $341,000 several years back for a salary audit that found they were overpaying employees by millions of dollars a year.
Now, school officials can’t seem to locate those findings.
It’s a common belief – though by no means necessarily true — that DeKalb schools’ payroll is flabby with high-paid jobs that have little or nothing to do with teaching kids.
News and blog reports discuss those workers in the context of a jobs program – cynically termed “the Friends and Family Plan” — that supposedly favors those with connections to school board members and top administrators.
So, for a year or more, school watchdogs have fussed over getting a copy of the salary audit. In 2004, the AJC reported consultants Ernst & Young had determined DeKalb was paying non-classroom workers $14.8 million more than they should each year.
At the time, former Superintendent Crawford Lewis said that report had exaggerated the overpayments, which were really $1.8 million. Today, school officials question whether a 7-year-old salary study could still be relevant.
Regardless of who’s right, some parents say Ernst & Young’s work might help to identify savings as DeKalb prepares to close a dozen or more schools and trim its payroll yet again.
Sandy Spruill, a parent who’s volunteered at DeKalb schools for 20-plus years, thought so too.
“I believe that we have enough money in the DeKalb County school system to do what needs to be done for our students,” Spruill told me last week. “The problem is we are way bloated in the central office and to make matters worse we are overpaying them.”
School officials had told other parents that the salary audit couldn’t be located. When Spruill filed a formal request last month under the Georgia Open Records Act, officials told her they had tracked it down and she could get a copy – if she paid retrieval and copying fees of $255.95.
Spruill balked. “I don’t think I should have to pay anything to take a study off a shelf,” she said.
Officials countered that it took time to compile the information from different locations and only a few people knew how to do that.
“It’s not like something you pull off a shelf,” schools spokesman Walter Woods said.
Many citizens facing similar obstacles just give up. Spruill pushed back, researched the open records law, and school officials eventually agreed she could look at the report, without getting a paper copy, for free.
As it turned out, Spruill is doubly lucky she didn’t have to pay, because DeKalb didn’t actually find the audit she requested.
Officials produced a “Compensation and Classification Program Documentation Manual,” evidently developed in 2005 as an offshoot of the audit, and summaries written by DeKalb school personnel of some of Ernst & Young’s work.
Those documents do not begin to address Spruill’s key questions: Who was being overpaid, by how much, and what did school officials do about it?
The 2005 manual said overcompensated workers would have their compensation frozen unless and until their pay grade was adjusted to catch up their actual pay. Did that happen? Without the audit that identified those positions, there’s no way for the public to tell.
Parents have searched for the audit on the district’s website, which posts school board agendas and backup material for meetings dating back to 2002. No luck there, either.
To their credit, school officials acknowledge that the public’s had a harder time getting public documents than it should.
Woods, a former AJC colleague of mine, said interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson has instructed him to streamline the process and make sure DeKalb is “totally compliant” with the Open Records Act.
“She has heard from the community that it’s not working like it should,” he said. “We take this seriously and I have been directed to make sure this happens in a better way.”
Until it does, DeKalb taxpayers can legitimately wonder how well their $341,000 was spent.