DeKalb schools spent over 100 times more CARES Act money on bonuses than one neighboring district

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — An investigation by Channel 2 Action News has found that DeKalb County school officials spent vastly more federal CARES Act money on employee bonuses than some other metro school districts.

In one case, DeKalb’s spending for bonuses was more than 100 times that of a neighboring district.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher broke the story that DeKalb spent $86.3 million of CARES Act money on direct employee bonuses, or supplements as school officials call them.

That prompted inquiries from viewers about other districts.

Guidelines reviewed by Channel 2 Action News show that expenses of CARES money are allowable if they are “directly related to prevention, preparedness and response to COVID-19.”

DeKalb told Channel 2 Action News its salary supplements met all federal requirements and were critical to keeping the district’s workforce in place during the pandemic.

Three other metro Atlanta school districts took very different paths with the hundreds of millions of dollars that flooded in from Washington.

DeKalb’s $86.3 million on salary supplements went to more than 10,500 employees -- from high-level administrators to crossing guards (then-superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris did not receive any extra pay.)

We estimate that’s nearly 17.7% of the total allocated to DeKalb.

Fulton County Schools spent $23 million on supplements. That’s 8.8% of Fulton’s CARES money.

Atlanta spent just $11.5 million on staff salary supplements, 3.7% of its federal allocation.

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Among the districts Channel 2 Action News checked with, Gwinnett schools -- the largest school district in Georgia -- has been the least likely to use CARES money for salary supplements. It spent $9 million dollars on incentives to encourage employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations but only $810,000 for direct supplements.

We estimate that’s 0.25% of the money allocated to Gwinnett.

DeKalb’s $86.3 million was about 107 times what Gwinnett spent on salary supplements.

“Something is not right,” says Marion Payne of the good government group Restore DeKalb.

Payne told Belcher the $86 million figure made him think of conditions inside so many DeKalb schools -- as recently documented by students at Druid Hills High.

“They (district officials) could have started with Druid Hills and Clarkston High Schools. Those two schools are in bad repair,” Payne said.

“It was treated as this fountain of free money that they can just spread as far and as wide as they wanted to,” said Dunwoody resident Kirk Lunde, who closely tracks spending by the school district.

He blames the massive spending on bonuses or supplements on what he calls “the culture of the central office.”

“In Dekalb County, there is the belief -- and it’s vocalized by some board of education members -- that the school district is a jobs program,” Lunde told Belcher.

The supplements were paid while Cheryl Watson-Harris was superintendent. The school board fired her April 26 without stating a reason, but Channel 2 Action News has not uncovered any evidence that the supplements played a role in her firing.

However, we have reported that state auditors are currently reviewing how DeKalb handled its $486 million in CARES money.

The DeKalb Board of Education requested an investigation of several issues including CARES money earlier this year.

The investigation was carried out by a private firm headed by a retired FBI agent.

Among its conclusions was that a top official in Watson-Harris’s cabinet approved CARES bonuses without properly checking with Watson-Harris.

The report said another cabinet official should have alerted her to the problem.

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