Special Assignment: The Price of Education

By: Laurie Ott
By: Laurie Ott

Beginning on Monday, Linda Schrenko goes on trial in a federal courtroom in Atlanta, on charges she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from Georgia schoolchildren and used it to pay for her failed gubernatorial campaign...and even a facelift.

The case stems from $613,000 in federal money Schrenko spent on software that prosecutors say was never delivered.

And while a jury will decide if the evidence is there to convict her, Schrenko spent an even greater amount of taxpayer money right here in Augusta.

Spending that money ended up benefiting her own campaign.

Every child in Richmond County public school, from kindergarten to 3rd grade, is using Voyager Learning System to learn to read.

Dr. Audrey Wood oversees curriculum for Richmond County Schools. She says Voyager made a very specific promise about how well it would work.

"The company promised we'd have 100% reading at grade level at the end of 3rd grade," she says.

But when News 12 investigated the reading scores for Richmond County children, we found that not only is it not 100 percent in many schools, in some, it's not even close.

Take Barton Chapel Elementary, for example.

The school has been using Voyager since 2004.

Barton students' reading scores on the state tests show 30 percent of 3rd graders do not meet performance standards in reading.

Other schools, like Collins, where Richmond County allowed News 12 to videotape classes, show far better scores. 13 percent of students there failed to meet state standards.

It's still not the 100% Dr. Wood says Voyager promised.

"I'd say this is good progress, and we are encouraged by the progress our students have made, and data is a good indicator on what next steps to take are," Dr. Wood says.

And about that 100% guarantee?

"Simply because somebody makes you a guarantee does not automatically mean that things are going to happen according to that guarantee, because we are dealing with young children and developing reading skills," Dr. Wood says.

But precisely because we are dealing with children, we should be concerned, says Richmond County School Board member and retired teacher Barbara Pulliam.

"I made an honest attempt to get them to look at it, not saying we must throw it out, but we must examine it to see if it's including all those things that we need to give our children to prepare them for the tests, that's all," Mrs. Pulliam says.

And that's not all Mrs. Pulliam's done. She says she's heard from more than 100 teachers who use Voyager.

"They thought it took away from their creativity, because it was scripted, and they had to say what was written and do exactly what program specified," says Mrs. Pulliam.

So she asked the board to survey teachers to see how they liked Voyager.

"I had some people tell me they never saw the survey who should have been surveyed," she says. "See what I'm saying?"

So how did we end up with Voyager in the first place?

In the fall of 2001, then-superintendent Linda Schrenko gave the more than $1 million grant to Richmond County...something then-school board chair Cathy Henson thought was suspect.

"She just arbitrarily gave them $1 million, with no board approval whatsoever," Henson told us in 2003. "Why Richmond County? We have 179 other counties who would love to have $1 million fall out of the sky into their laps."

News 12 heard from Voyager Thursday afternoon, April 27. The vice president of marketing told us the 100 percent reading guarantee was dropped due to lack of interest from districts adopting the program.

He did say this guarantee is still available to Richmond County schools, although he says few students would require it.

That $1.1 million from Schrenko was the just the start of taxpayer dollars spent on Voyager.

Using numbers from the Richmond County School Board, News 12 has done the math. From 2003 to 2006, Richmond County taxpayers have spent more than $2.5 million on Voyager learning.

On top of that, federal taxpayers spent another $5.4 million on Voyager.

When you total it all up, along with the $1.1 million from Schrenko, it comes to more than $9.1 million.

As Mrs. Pulliam suggests, we should be asking if we're getting our money's worth.

And there's also the question of timing. Linda Schrenko was running for governor at the time of her grant to Richmond County.

Within 2 months of her authorizing the $1.1 million for Voyager, Voyager executives in Texas contributed $55,000 to her gubernatorial campaign.

Here's a closer look at the timeline we're talking about:

Linda Schrenko was in her second term as superintendent when she wrote that check for Voyager. That was in October of 2001.

Then in December of 2001, Voyager executives and their spouses contributed $55,000 to Schrenko's campaign for governor.

In June and July of 2002, Schrenko spent $663,000 dollars on software and a calling system the auditor says were never delivered.

In August 2002, Schrenko lost to Sonny Perdue in the gubernatorial primary.

In January of 2003, Schrenko left the office of superintendent.

In November of 2003, News 12 investigated the $663,000 in spending by Schrenko.

In November of 2004, Schrenko, her deputy superintendent Merle Temple, and a South African businessman were indicted by a federal grand jury.

Schrenko's trial on those federal charges is slated to start Monday, May 1.

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