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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.

Alston said he took his plan to Lorelle S. Dance, who at the time was a parent volunteer at Coolidge and the chairman of an advisory committee known as the Local School Restructuring Team. She worked as a business manager at six other District schools.

Dance was using her position at other schools to defraud the District. She falsified documents and directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to a contractor who sometimes performed no work and paid her kickbacks, according to court records. She eventually pleaded guilty to those crimes.

At Coolidge, Dance and Alston were the driving force behind the gospel concert, according to Jackson, who said he signed the checks to fund the event. "No one put a gun to my head," he said.

School administrators used the AOL money to rent a sound system, hire security, retain Ticketmaster, buy airline tickets to fly in extra musicians, print fliers and buy radio advertisements, according to invoices. Organizers left records showing that their biggest expense was $20,000 paid in checks made out to a Christian music entertainment company based in Atlanta and Washington to hire John P. Kee, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer. All of the money was paid in advance.

The fundraiser on June 14, 2003, was an expensive disaster. Fewer than 50 people showed up. One attendee counted five.

"Something was weird about that concert," recalled Kee, who traveled from North Carolina for the show. "They told me it was a fundraiser for kids. I do remember being puzzled when I got there and didn't see any kids."

The booking agent, Thomas Johns, owner of Open Ear Christian Entertainment, initially told The Post that he did not receive the $20,000 fee that Coolidge officials reported paying him. If records showed otherwise, "those had to be fake," he said.

In a later interview, Johns said that he had spoken to a concert organizer who told him that he must have forgotten receiving the $20,000 because it had been deposited into Johns's bank account for him. Whatever amount he received, Johns said he "gave John Kee all the money. . . . I didn't make a dime."

Kee said in interviews that he was paid considerably less than $20,000 for the concert, but he did not recall the exact amount. "If I got $20,000, I would remember that," he said.

Jackson, the principal, said that $20,000 sounded "way out of line." He said that Kee was paid about $8,000. "This raises serious questions for me," Jackson said.

In all, school officials reported spending more than $33,000 of the AOL grant on the concert and thousands more to buy groceries, pay delinquent bills and hold a $1,280 breakfast catered by Mr. Omelette.

In September 2004, school auditors asked the D.C. inspector general to investigate. Investigators confirmed the auditor's findings but closed the case without referring it to federal prosecutors. They reported that AOL "does not wish to operate in a punitive mode."

In an interview with investigators, Jackson blamed the fiasco on Coolidge's parent-teacher advisory team, which happened to be headed by Dance. Concert organizers -- Jackson, Alston and Dance -- all eventually went to work at Booker T. Washington Public Charter School.

Dance pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy in connection with her work as a business manager at several District schools. She admitted to conspiring with a contractor and one of the elementary school principals with whom she worked, records show. That principal awaits trial. Dance, who declined an interview request, is serving an 18-month sentence at the federal prison in Alderson, W.Va.

In the concert's aftermath, John M. Cashmon, the head of the school district's audit office, issued reports on the misuse of the AOL grant and on the many other problems with Coolidge's student activity fund. He asked District officials with oversight authority for Coolidge to respond to his recommendations.

No one did.

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