State looks at Newton principal
Georgia DOE investigating Academic Coach Program

COVINGTON - A Newton County School System principal is the subject of an investigation by the state for alleged mismanagement of the Georgia Department of Education's Academic Coach Program.

The Office of the Attorney General of Georgia has opened an investigation into the program, for which Livingston Elementary School Principal Wendy Hughes served as the director of Teacher Quality in 2006 and 2007.

According to a special 38-page report released in late July from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, State School Superintendent Kathy Cox requested the State Government Division of the GDAA to conduct an independent investigation into the Academic Coach program after GDOE officials noticed financial irregularities during fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

After its investigation, GDAA reported that officials found evidence of fraud, waste and abuse during those fiscal years.

The investigation revealed that Hughes and another director allegedly outsourced program responsibilities to an external organization, the Oconee Regional Educational Service Agency, which misappropriated program funds to its employees and family members.

"In each fiscal year, the GDOE entered into a contractual arrangement with the Oconee Regional Educational Service Agency to assist in the implementation of the program," the report states. "During FY 2006 and 2007, we determined the Oconee RESA expended approximately $1.2 million in state funds received from the GDOE. However, no money was paid to academic coaches in the form of salary supplements or bonuses in exchange for mentoring other public school teachers."

The Academic Coach Program began in July 2005 under the Teacher Quality Division of the GDOE after being introduced in Senate Bill 34 as a way for teachers to mentor one another while receiving salary supplements and a way to possibly boost student test scores as a result of the mentoring.

The GDAA report concludes that the program failed to achieve its objectives.

According to the report, officials allege that no clear responsibilities between the GDOE and the Oconee RESA existed; the majority of the expenditures during this time period didn't comply with Senate Bill 34; no written contracts existed with some contractors and consultants; and expenditures included payments to Oconee RESA employees through outside company names, current and former GDOE employees and relatives of the Oconee RESA director and the GDOE Academic Coach Program Manager Vickie Lindsey, among other irregularities.

The GDAA report shows that Hughes and Lindsey allegedly chose to enter into a contract with the Oconee RESA "in an apparent effort to circumvent the state's more stringent policies and procedures in favor of the ease of disbursing funds afforded by an external organization."

According to the report, the investigation also found that Hughes didn't properly supervise Lindsey or properly execute the contract with Oconee RESA.

"Based on the findings of this investigation, it appears that the GDOE's former Director of Teacher Quality (Hughes) did not exercise sufficient oversight of the Academic Coach Program to ensure that objectives were being met," the report states. "Obvious risks that the Academic Coach Program would not comply with Senate Bill 34 were present, but were seemingly ignored."

The risks referred to included the program being new and led by a first-time program manager with no financial management background and that the contract with Oconee RESA involved outsourcing away from the GDOE.

"The GDOE should continue to strengthen its contract management/oversight to ensure that good stewardship over public funds is continually practiced," the report states. "Effective 'next-level' management reviews should be implemented to prevent fraud, waste and abuse."

The investigation also could find no evidence that Lindsey or Hughes assessed training material or training sessions for the coaches.

John Thornton Sr., director of the State Government Division at the GDAA, said officials interviewed Hughes, as well as other individuals involved in the program, in addition to reviewing financial records and other documents, to conduct their investigation.

After the investigation was complete, officials at GDAA recommended that the GDOE contact the Georgia Attorney General's Office to determine the next step and the possibility of a criminal investigation.

According to Russ Willard, a spokesman for the state attorney general, Cox contacted the department about the program and officials have since opened an investigation into the matter. He said he could not give specifics of the investigation nor confirm or deny the individuals it will involve; he also could not provide a timeline for the investigation.

Hughes said Thursday that she could not comment on the matter, as it is under investigation.

She did say that when she resigned as program director of teacher quality in June 2007, she was not encouraged by anyone to resign.

Thornton said even though Hughes resigned in June 2007, before the GDAA investigation began, she is not eliminated from any responsibilities.

After resigning as director from the Academic Coach program, Hughes came to NCSS and began serving as principal of Livingston Elementary in August 2007.

She previously was an educator in Rockdale and DeKalb counties. She served as a teacher at Edwards Middle School in Conyers from August 1991 to 1993, as a teacher at Memorial Middle School during the 1993-94 school year and as an instructional coordinator in Rockdale County Public Schools from 1994 until December 1999, according to Cindy Ball, director of community relations for RCPS.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.