Friday, May 07, 2010

TOP STORY > >State helps embattled supervisor

Leader staff writer

The Arkansas Department of Educat-ion has accepted three grant applications for after-school programs in Sher-wood and Jacksonville, even though the applicant has decided not to comply with a proposed agreement from the Pulaski County Special School District in exchange for the district superintendent’s signatures on the applications, a requirement for submission.

The three grants total $1.5 million and would provide enrichment programs for up to 630 elementary and secondary students.

The ADE decided to temporarily waive the signature requirement so that Jody Abernathy, who wrote the grants and also directs the DREAM pre-school and after-school programs at Harris Elementary School in the McAlmont community—could meet the deadline, which was yesterday.

“It was a way to enable Abernathy to submit the applications without the signatures, rather than say, ‘This is over for you this year,’” said Julie Thompson, ADE spokesperson.

Abernathy has been under fire from PCSSD because she is behind on her payments to the district’s food services for meals and snacks provided to her programs. The district says she owes $26,666, and she vows to have it paid by the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30. The PCSSD school board wants to contractually hold her to that promise and also have oversight controls over DREAM in place in exchange for McGill’s signatures on the grant applications. Abernathy says the proposed agreement, passed this week by the board, turns over too much authority of DREAM to the district.

A letter dated May 6 from Tammy Cloyes, the coordinator of the 21st Century Learning Center grant program at the ADE, said,
“The ADE’s approval for submission is based on the PCSSD board of education’s recommendation that Mr. McGill sign the application. Once the matter between DREAM and PCSSD is resolved, Jody Abernathy will obtain an original superintendent signature within thirty days.”

According to the contract drawn up by district attorneys and school board member Charlie Wood, Abernathy would be required to pay $13,000 of what she owes by May 31 and the remainder, along with any other accrued charges, by June 30. Further, it asks her to give the district the right to review DREAM financial records at any time. The district would also have the authority to decide who runs any new DREAM programs. Two of the grants submitted by Abernathy would expand DREAM – to Sylvan Hills Elementary School and Jacksonville High School. Specifically, the agreement states, “Any new DREAM programs at other District facilities will be initially under the leadership of a different program director.” The agreement goes on to say that “PCSSD reserves the right to recognize Abernathy as director of any new programs,” if she proves herself.

Abernathy says that she has no problem with opening her books, but that the agreement would open the door to meddling and management by the district of DREAM, which is a nonprofit organization independent of PCSSD.

“I am okay with anybody looking at our financial records,” Abernathy said. “Our state legislative audits are clean. We don’t owe anybody but PCSSD, and there is a reason for that. But basically, the contract is saying that the district can manage the program and says who can and cannot work and in what position. Basically, that is turning the direction of the program over to the district.”

Abernathy is an independent contractor. She started DREAM at a North Little Rock church in 2008 and relocated to Harris Elementary School in 2009, when a similar program run by the district ended with its failure to secure an extension of funding.

Abernathy and McGill for more than a month have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the signatures and Abernathy’s outstanding bill to the district’s food service. McGill has not wanted to sign the applications because of the debt. The PCSSD school board has twice in the last month directed McGill to sign the applications and then this week added the proposed contract as part of the deal. Abernathy says that she got behind on payments last year because she was waiting to meet with the district to discuss what she felt was an over-charge. She contends that she is being unfairly billed at a higher rate than other independent contractors providing similar services. She says she’ll pay up, despite refusing to sign the contract proposed by the board.

“I think that is important and hope to have even half of it on (May 31),” Abernathy said, adding that the fact that she has reduced the balance owed from $73,000 to $26,000 in the last month “doesn’t show somebody that is not paying their bills.”