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City schools' lunch money unaccounted for

POSTED: June 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

What happened to the lunch money?

As part of the Gainesville school system’s ongoing financial struggles, officials are saying they can’t account for federal program expenses, including for school nutrition, in the current year’s budget.

"To my knowledge, there was no school nutrition budget put together," chief financial officer Janet Allison told Superintendent Steven Ballowe and City Board of Education members in a May 29 e-mail obtained Thursday by The Times.

Allison said the district projected $2.9 million in revenues for the school nutrition program in this year’s budget, which ends June 30. The school year ended on May 23.

An analysis of the budget shows the district planned for $1.1 million in salaries and benefits, leaving at least $1.8 million unaccounted for.

"The missing school nutrition program expenditures are part of the $4.2 million that is not reflected in the expenditure summary page of (this year’s) budget, nor are these expenditures found in the detail," Allison said in the memo.

The school system currently is undergoing an audit for the 2006-07 budget year, which ended June 30, 2007. At the end of this fiscal year, June 30, Allison projects a $6.5 to $7 million shortfall in revenue.

Allison did not return an e-mail and phone call from The Times to clarify or comment further on her e-mail.

The newspaper has filed two requests under the Georgia Open Records Act — one Tuesday for Ballowe’s contract and one Wednesday for board-approved budgets and financial information spanning the past three years.

Allison referred questions about her e-mail to Phil Hartley, the board’s Gainesville attorney, in an e-mail to board members.

Board member Sammy Smith replied to the e-mail, saying, "Janet understands her primary duty is to focus on budget items/documents/preparations for the staff and board in addition to being the prime interface with the state auditors who have been with us for weeks."

Other board members — Willie Mitchell, Kelvin Simmons, David Syfan and Maria Calkins — could not be reached for comment.

Calkins has been on a preplanned vacation this past week, as has Ballowe. He returns to work next week.

The district is between school nutrition directors. The school board voted May 19 to hire Tiffany Lommel to begin June 16 to replace June Poulsen, who was hired in April 2007.

Poulsen, according to school records, resigned her post effective May 29 to move to Savannah. She couldn’t be reached for comment.

Renee Gerrell, who will have three children attending Centennial Arts Academy in the fall, served on a school nutrition committee this past school year.

She said that at the group’s first meeting in the fall someone asked Poulsen about the district’s nutrition budget.

"June looked at them very plainly and said, ‘I don’t know. I have not been given a budget,’" Gerrell said. "... And nothing was done about it.

"It’s not just about school nutrition. To me, this is one example of how screwed up the system is and was."

Allison said in her May 29 e-mail that Poulsen, before leaving her job, estimated revenues and expenses for the 2008-09 fiscal year, except for salaries that Allison projected.

"I am making every effort to include all projected revenues/expenditures for every fund, not just the general fund," Allison said. "In this way, we should account for everything based on the best information available to us at this juncture."

Typically, school systems pay for their school nutrition program through federal money and meal charges.

Federal money varies according to the percentage of students in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, 75 percent of the Gainesville system’s students were eligible for the federally subsidized program, compared to 50 percent for the state, in the 2006-07 school year.

The school board is set to meet at noon Monday and Tuesday in the board room at central offices at 508 Oak St. to discuss the budget.

Ballowe has recommended that the school board raise the tax rate to 8.34 mills from 6.94, or by 20 percent, to cover the shortfall. He also is recommending some $4.5 million in budget cuts next year.

The school system has until June 30 to approve a budget for fiscal 2008-09, which begins July 1.



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