By Daarel Burnette II and Nancy Badertscher
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fulton Science Academy Middle School released a 54-page rebuttal to a critical school system audit Thursday, saying the county report was "incomplete," "inaccurate" and based on "flawed assumptions."
"The [audit] report is inflammatory and meant to mislead the public," said Angela Lassetter, academy spokeswoman and board member at the academically acclaimed school in Alpharetta.
The academy, a public charter school, will become a private school July 1.
Fulton County Schools released an audit earlier this month that questioned the school's management and financial practices, including its contracts with businesses and groups tied to the Gulen education movement and money spent on bringing in teachers and other workers from Turkey.
Academy officials have from the outset challenged the accuracy of many of audit's findings. They sent their formal response to the school system Thursday.
"Unfortunately, [Fulton Science Academy] continues to demonstrate a lack of transparency and cooperation," said Fulton County spokeswoman Samantha Evans. "There is nothing in the school's audit response that causes Fulton County Schools to believe the IAG audit is innaccurate or flawed. In fact, the audit was prepared from information provided by the school."
Lassetter said investors recently demanded payment on an $18.9 million bond issue that the school obtained last year to build a new campus for the middle school and two related schools. She said the school could sell property to cover the bonds.
She said the school spent at least $15,000 hiring GlassRatner Advisory & Capital Group of Atlanta to examine the findings of the school system audit and document any inaccuracies.
"I think Fulton County Schools gave the auditors direction so they could justify closing our school," she said. "They have a lot to gain by seeing us go away."
The academy's response said the school was not obligated to follow traditional bidding processes in awarding contracts because of its flexibility under the state's charter school law.
The school system's audit had raised questions about some of the academy's contracts with Turkish-owned businesses and past employees.
In the rebuttal, the academy also fired back at the school system for the implication that the academy had misused public money on immigration services for several employees, mostly teachers.
The academy's response said this is a common business practice even for the school system itself. The report said that type of expense cost Fulton County Schools $3.5 million over a two-year period.
"This is hypocritical and defamatory in a way that is inappropriate," Lassetter said.
Evans said the district spent about $2 million on 26 "teachers for hard to staff schools and positions." The cost includes salary, benefits, training fees, as well as vendor fees, Evans said.
The academy also defended school trips to Turkey as having been paid for either by participants or with nonpublic funds. Parents on the trip did not need background checks as the school system audit inferred, the school response said, because they had a different itinerary.
THE STORY SO FAR
Fulton Science Academy Middle School, a lauded charter school in the Fulton County school system, has had 500 students and many academic successes, specializing in math, science, technology and engineering. It becomes a private school July 1, and school officials are expecting at least 200 students. The school wanted a 10-year extension of its public charter, but was offered a three-year extension by the school system. School officials then went to the state, but were also denied there.