The Achievement School District operates 31 charter schools in Memphis and two in Nashville designed to raise the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee up to the top 25% in the state, according to the mission statement on the ASD website — but for the first time since ASD's inception, a comprehensive performance audit of the state-run district has been completed and has revealed that ASD has not adequately controlled the practices being used in its human resources and payroll offices. The deficiencies included reimbursement of dubious travel claims and payments for alcohol served at a celebration at the central office.
After the state comptroller's office published the audit, spokesperson John Dunn explained that this was the first state audit of the charter schools, but noted that any federal money spent by schools is audited each year.
"We picked up the attitude across the board in the Achievement School District that they were more concerned about âgetting the job done' for students rather than financial controls," Jason Mumpower, chief of staff for the comptroller's office, told state lawmakers in Nashville during a Joint House Education Committee meeting Wednesday.
Mumpower said newer agencies often have problems with their audits and added that he is pleased with the response from the ASD and the Tennessee Department of Education upon the audit being released.
Some of the controversial issues that turned up included not verifying the central office staff's education credentials and allowing employees to approve their travel expenses themselves. The procedures for employees leaving the district were inadequate and sometimes caused salaries and benefits to be over-paid.
The audit also shows that nine expenditure transactions were not managed properly and totaled $83,363, while seven travel claims were handled incorrectly and created a $2,460 deficit. According to the audit, a payment of $698 was made for one day of transportation for the deputy superintendent to travel from Nashville to Memphis.
Another substantial amount of money, $2,500, was spent on a holiday party that included alcohol and a bartender, for all ASD schools and staff. ASD management spent $1,631 on alcohol purchased with a purchasing card that charged the amount to the Charter School Grant Funding account, a grant that was only to be used for operating expenses during the 2015-2016 academic year.
ASD's chief operating officer defended the spending by pointing out that "the charge used was in accordance with the grant's purpose of providing robust leadership to the schools through an expanded Support and Leadership team." But Mumpower told the joint House Education Committee that schools should never purchase alcohol with taxpayers' funds.
WTVF-TV's Jennifer Kraus adds that over $131,000 was spent by ASD for which there was no supporting documentation at all.
"The things that we found in this audit do raise some eyebrows," John Dunn, spokesman for the Comptroller's Office, told NewsChannel5 Investigates.
He continued by noting that the review was based on only a small sample of purchases. However, the ASD also had discrepancies in the annual federal audits that are carried out to examine how federal funding was spent in Tennessee. Finally, the state DoE took over the district's financial operations earlier this year.
Lawmakers were alarmed, concerned, and, on some level, angered, but parents of students in the Achievement School District say the charters have made a difference in their communities.
At one point during the audit, it was discovered that payments of $5,895 had been made to staff who were no longer working for ASD, reports Andy Sher for the Times Free Press.
The latest comptroller declared that ASD did not have adequate procedures, processes, and controls in place to discern whether its schools were in compliance with state and federal requirements. Even some of the methods and systems created or adopted by ASD itself had not been followed by the charters.