Data-entry error costs Atlanta charter schools $2.3 million

The Kindezi School organization is asking Georgia lawmakers to come up with nearly $1 million for teacher health benefits

A data-entry error has a cost an Atlanta charter school operation $2.3 million, prompting a plea to Georgia lawmakers for help. 

Kindezi School plays a role in Atlanta Public Schools’ turnaround strategy, and the system sent an administrator to bolster the request for a special appropriation of $1 million. 

Dean Leeper, founder of Kindezi, which operates three schools in the city, told a House of Representatives subcommittee Monday that a computer-related error prevented a timely funding request through the state’s formal budgeting process. The money, he said, is Georgia’s share of what would have been owed Kindezi for employee health benefits if an accurate request had been made on time. 

Instead, the data Kindezi submitted to its authorizing agency, APS, was inaccurate when it reached the Georgia Department of Education. The error caused the state shortfall and the loss of another $1.3 million the school district would have provided as a match.

Leeper told lawmakers his organization was using savings to pay teachers’ health benefits. “We are in a cash-flow crunch,” he said. 

Ted Beck, chief of finance for the state education department, told lawmakers it’s too late: State funding for public schools was calculated based on data submitted over a year ago, and it’s up to schools to provide accurate information, he said. “The money’s not there. I can’t change that allocation.” 

Leeper said if the General Assembly doesn’t find the money, he’ll have to beg APS for help. 

But Gayle Burnett, who leads the district’s Office of Innovation and attended the hearing, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a public school system cannot legally provide its share of tax dollars to a charter school without the matching amount coming from the state’s education funding formula. “We can’t just arbitrarily give a school money,” she said. She said she was not speaking for the superintendent or the school board when she said she thought it would be “very very difficult” to fund Kindezi in some other way. 

She and Leeper said the data-entry error involved new computer software and the way it interacted with Kindezi’s data submission. Data sent to the state indicated a handful of employees were receiving health benefits while most were not. The opposite was true. 

Kindezi’s plight affects APS because the nonprofit educates about 1,200 public school students at two startup charter schools and one traditional school. The school district hired Kindezi to manage Gideons Elementary, now known as the Kindezi School at Gideons. 

Leeper told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the funding error affected his two charter schools, and not Gideons, which was among the 16 city schools identified in November as persistently low-performing under a new state law. 

The First Priority Act allows state intervention in any of the 104 schools on that list. Georgia’s new chief turnaround officer, Eric Thomas, didn’t pick Gideons or any other Atlanta school in his first group, saying rural Georgia was more in need of state help and, unlike metro Atlanta school districts, invited him in. 

Back in November, when the list of eligible schools was released, Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen suggested the city didn’t need Thomas’ help. “I’m glad that the state is doing what they’re doing but we’ve already started our process,” she said. 

Burnett urged lawmakers to find money for Kindezi. “This is a very unfortunate error,” she said, “and we hope they can be made whole.”

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