Atlanta Public Schools misspent or mismanaged nearly $73 million from a national program intended to give poor children access to the Internet, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
With virtually no limit on spending, Atlanta since 1998 has built one of the country’s most lavish computer networks for schoolchildren.
Now, Atlanta says it needs $14 million a year — three times the district’s textbook budget — just to run and maintain the network. And much of the promised benefit to students has yet to materialize.
Signs of the spending spree can be found throughout the school system.
At one elementary school, equipment powerful enough to operate a small school district runs just 20 computers. At another, Atlanta billed the program for electronics for twice as many classrooms as the school has. Millions of dollars were spent at other schools that were closed or demolished within a few years. Elsewhere, boxes of costly computer components, some still wrapped in plastic, gather dust in storage.
At three Atlanta elementary schools, the cost of bringing high-speed Internet access to classrooms reached about $1 million. Suburban Forsyth County, by contrast, paid about $200,000 for the same result at much larger schools.
The district spent money without requiring bids for the best price, with little oversight from school board members and few questions from check writers in Washington who subsidized the work. APS officials defer many questions about spending to former employees.
The national program that financed Atlanta’s extravagance, called E-rate, won’t pay for computers but helps schools pay for Internet infrastructure they might not otherwise be able to afford. Now, amid charges of waste and fraud around the country, the program faces mounting scrutiny in Washington.
Americans everywhere have picked up the tab for E-rate through a surcharge on their telephone bills.
It was Other People’s Money.