How a 'Fundraiser' Ate Up Nearly All of a $50,000 Grant

By April Witt and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 9, 2007

As Coolidge High slashed its budget for teachers and supplies in spring 2003, the struggling school received a welcome infusion of cash from one of its biggest benefactors. The AOL Time Warner Foundation sent a check for $50,000 to hire a technology expert who would ensure that students had working computers.

The money went into Coolidge's student activity account, which enabled school administrators to use it to stage a gospel fundraiser. Fewer than 50 people attended.

Within months, almost all the money from the foundation was gone. School auditors later determined that Coolidge officials "misused and/or misappropriated" almost $47,000 of the grant.

Coolidge has a history of losing charitable contributions.

Science teacher Terry Nostrand raised $20,610 from the Tony Hawk Foundation and Project Learning Tree in 2003 to build a skateboarding park at the high school. She deposited the money into the student activity fund. When she tried to retrieve the money the following year, she "kept getting one story after another," Nostrand recalled. "Runaround, runaround, runaround."

Nostrand never did get answers about whether the money was stolen or lost to bad accounting. Auditors attempted to trace the money within the student account but declared the records "unauditable." The city had to repay the donors, and the skatepark eventually was built elsewhere.

AOL had been trying to help Coolidge students since 1998. The foundation had donated money for scholarships, equipped most of the classrooms with computers and printers and sent several large checks, records show.

The $50,000 grant in 2003 was for "the sole purpose" of paying the salary of an employee to keep school computers running, according to a letter the foundation sent to the school. The check arrived at a time when Coolidge was starved of resources. Then-Principal Richard A. Jackson recalled that he was forced to trim staff and supplies.

"We had been cut so much; we were losing teachers," he said in an interview. "We got to the point we couldn't cut any more toilet paper or light bulbs, we had to cut people."

Jackson said he decided to hold the concert to raise additional money. He said that an AOL official, Kristie W. Cunningham, gave him permission to divert the grant. "They said, 'You got it, use it as you see fit,' " Jackson said.

Cunningham, who no longer works for AOL, said in an interview that she would not have had the authority to give Jackson permission to use the money for a concert. The Washington Post contacted two people who served as top administrators for the foundation in 2003. One said that she had not authorized the grant to be redirected. The other said he had not spoken to Jackson.

The idea for the fundraiser came from Robert H. Alston Jr., then Coolidge's in-school suspension coordinator. Alston said in an interview that he had never put on a concert before, but that he still hoped to raise as much as $100,000 for the school. "Our whole goal was to do something for kids, not take things from them," he said.

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