A Socastee High School teacher is accusing the Horry County Schools superintendent and the county school board of falsifying an application for a federal grant, according to records obtained by the Herald.
Bobby Chandler, a social studies teacher, said in emails to school officials that county teachers were coerced by Superintendent Cindy Elsberry into declaring their support for an application to the federal Race to the Top program, even though they knew nothing about the contents of the application.
Chandler, who has been one of the district’s most vocal critics for years, said in the emails that Elsberry’s actions may constitute federal fraud.
He is also calling for the state Department of Education to strip Elsberry of her professional superintendent’s certification.
The Race to the Top program provides millions of dollars to local school districts for new classroom initiatives.
Chandler claims that the district, with the approval of the school board, submitted false information to the U.S. Department of Education to try to qualify for Race to the Top money.
Horry County Schools spokeswoman Teal Harding said the district was a finalist last year in the Race to the Top competition but did not qualify this year for the $2.5 million award.
Chandler alleges that even though money was not exchanged, federal fraud still occurred because false information was knowingly submitted in the process.
His beef with Elsberry began on Sept. 12 when teachers were sent an email from the district office after 8 a.m. and were told to watch a video of the superintendent.
In the video, Elsberry asks for teacher support of the grant application and tells the teachers “there is nothing you have to do” except sign a form that each principal will circulate later. She said the district needed 80 percent of the teachers to approve the application before it was submitted.
The actual grant requirement on the U.S. Department of Education site calls for 70 percent approval.
In an interview with the Herald, Chandler said teachers had no prior knowledge about what they’d be asked to do.
“At 10:11 that morning, our principal Dr. Browning sent an email that a form would be coming around at the start of the second block for teachers to sign in support of the application,” Chandler said. “First, some teachers had not even had a chance to read their emails at that point. And second, district policy says that such forms require anonymity so that teachers don’t feel forced to sign something.”
Chandler said the larger issue is that the grant application requires each district to solicit input from teachers, principals, students and the community about the content of the grant before actually submitting it.
“At no time did our teachers at Socastee receive prior information about the contents nor did we have a meeting to discuss it or offer suggestions,” Chandler said. “Had we had a chance to offer our suggestions, perhaps the district would have been successful in getting the money.”
Section B4 of the U.S. Department of Education grant application requires a description of how students, families, teachers and principals were engaged in the development of the proposal.
An email from Harding to Chandler dated Nov. 11 confirms that no such meeting was ever held at Socastee High School for this purpose.
Chandler told the school board four days later that agreeing to approve the grant application was wrong because it contained false information and the proper procedures had not been followed.
“They refused to discuss any of my concerns and went along with the superintendent to submit the application anyway,” Chandler said. “They had three weeks to do something about this before the Oct. 3 deadline.”
Chandler said the federal application process is a serious matter that should alarm all citizens of Horry County.
He added that on a state level, Elsberry’s conduct should warrant her removal from her superintendent’s post.
“Dr. Elsberry’s unprofessional conduct is quite clear,” he said. “Whatever the motivation, the state Department of Education should not shrug this matter off as the rantings of a discontented employee, but should examine the facts of the matter and revoke the superintendent’s professional certificate.”
Chandler said other teachers have come to him with the same concerns but are afraid to take a public stand in fear of retaliation.
“I’m just doing this because teachers should not be used as pawns,” he said. “I have nothing to gain and everything to lose in taking this stand.”
Horry County Board of Education Chairman Joe DeFeo dismissed Chandler’s accusations.
“Bobby has a constitutional right to state his opinions, but he should clarify them as opinion and not fact,” DeFeo said. “In every situation, Bobby puts himself in the position of judge and jury.”
As to the school board blindly following the district staff’s lead, DeFeo said he takes his duties seriously and would never agree to something without knowing the details.
“I’ll admit that I didn’t read the entire document, but I did make myself aware of what we were agreeing to,” he said.
Through the district’s spokesperson, Elsberry declined to be interviewed for this story.
Harding, the spokeswoman, said the district had made every effort to comply with any grant requirements.
“Horry County Schools made a sincere effort to attain feedback from teachers and administrators as one of many requirements of a very extensive grant application,” Harding said. “The accusations made by Mr. Chandler are misleading in regards to both our efforts and our intent.”
Similar issue in Texas
In applying for the Race To The Top award, Horry County joined a consortium of seven other school districts from across the country.
One of these was the McCallen School District, located in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
Teachers in McCallen have raised the same issues that Chandler has about the Race to the Top application.
Rob D’Amico, spokesperson for the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said the McCallen teachers have complained they were left out of the Race to the Top process for two years in a row.
“The McCallen teachers had essentially no input at all in this application process,” D’Amico said. “We complained to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan but to no avail so far. We think this should be taken seriously.”
D’Amico said he has had contact with Chandler about the issue and has viewed Dr. Elsberry’s video that was sent to the teachers on Sept. 12.
“That was even more extreme than here in Texas,” he said. “I can see why Mr. Chandler is concerned.”
Tom O’Dare • 488-7261