Investigation: CARES Act money used to pay DeKalb schools bonuses, nothing used to fix buildings

A Channel 2 Action News investigation has found that DeKalb County school officials used federal COVID-19 relief money to pay supplements or bonuses totaling nearly $90 million to more than 10,000 district employees.

Guidelines reviewed by Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher show that expenses are allowable if they are directly related to prevention, preparedness and response to COVID-19.

The district contends the supplements met all requirements and were a critical element up and down the organization as a way to keep the workforce in place.

In response to an open records request for all bonuses or supplements paid with federal CARES Act money, the district sent a massive spreadsheet that contains more than 130,000 entries.

Belcher found the payments in the spreadsheet totaled $86.3 million. More than 10,500 individuals received payments

[READ: Some DeKalb school officials received bonuses as high at $10K from CARES Act money]

In a statement, DeKalb schools said:

“If school districts did not pay supplements to teachers, many would not have had the minimum workforce to teach, bus drivers to drive the buses, nutrition workers to prepare and serve food, or custodians to maintain our facilities.

“It would have been exponentially worse if we could not retain our employees.”

That statement doesn’t mention that virtually all system employees, including the highly compensated, received the bonuses.

That $86 million number shocked Joel Edwards of the good government group Restore DeKalb, who is a frequent critic of district management.

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“The public’s going to be alarmed by this,” Edwards said. “When you talk about CARES Act money going to the top echelon that’s already being overpaid and is top heavy in the system, no. No. No.”

Kirk Lunde lives in Dunwoody and is a parent who follows the school district closely -- especially spending.

“There is a vast rewarding of people for not doing a good job,” Lunde said.

Lunde notes that the area superintendent whose region includes Druid Hills and Lakeside High schools received a generous federally funded supplement -- even though student videos have clearly documented the embarrassingly poor conditions inside both schools.

Channel 2 Action News has also documented the bad management of the online FLEX Academy, where 39% of the first semester grades were Fs.

But Lunde said everyone in that department got a bonus.

“Nothing is working well in DeKalb County, yet everybody continues to get paid and get supplements. I want that job,” Lunde said.

The district said the school board didn’t approve the supplements, but administrators kept the board informed.

State auditors are currently examining the payments to see if they are in compliance with state and federal requirements.

A final note: Belcher did not find any payments to recently-fired superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.

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