Editor’s note: The past few months, the Coastal Courier received several letters and phone calls, all anonymous, alleging poor management and questionable use of funds by the Liberty County School System administration, now headed by Dr. Valya Lee. The Courier’s policy has been and remains that sources sign and acknowledge the letters we receive for publication, but in some cases, when a slew of letters make similar claims, we look into the matter, report on what we know and offer all sides the opportunity to respond. That is the case here. We began our coverage by bringing the allegations presented to us to Dr. Lee for her response on behalf of the school system. This story is the first of a two-part series into the letter’s allegations and Dr. Lee’s responses.
This week — June 25, to be exact — marks one year since Dr. Valya Lee was instated as the Liberty County School System’s superintendent. Much has changed within LCSS in the year that has past — all for the good, in Lee’s opinion.
“All of the decisions that we make have to be in the best interest of the children,” she said in a recent interview. “And I think that has been the case as we’ve gone along.
“When you look at what we were able to accomplish in a year, it’s almost unheard of,” Lee said. “So, I applaud the staff, because they eventually bought in, and helped to make it happen.”
Despite Lee’s optimism, it would seem that not all staff members have “bought in.” Over the course of the last year, and with increased regularity over the past two months, the Courier has received phone calls and letters — all anonymous — alleging that Lee is careless with district funds, is insensitive to staff and has even forced some employees into retirement.
The letter writers paint the district workers’ environment as one of fear and anxiety. Since the letters have all been anonymous, the Courier has been unable to interview their authors. Lee, however, agreed to an in-depth interview and sat with the Courier for nearly three hours, answering the letters’ claims, one by one.
One recurring complaint has been the perceived mismanagement of district funds, the approval of exorbitant raises for new administrative positions and the superintendent’s own salary, which one letter-writer claimed to be “right at $200,000 … much different than any other superintendent from the past.” Another letter speaks to the new chiefs and some executive directors receiving raises between “$20,000 to $40,000.”
Regarding Lee’s salary, it has been public record since her hiring one year ago that her three-year contract is worth $170,000 per year — $15,000 less than LCSS’s two previous superintendents, each of whom earned salaries of $185,000.
The same letter also claimed that “the board has approved paying Dr. Lee’s insurance, taxes, plus her salary.” Lee responded to this by disclosing that although her initial contract did not include TRS (teacher’s retirement plan) or benefits, the board did agree to an adjustment to cover these costs after taking into consideration the $15,000 pay difference and the six furlough days — worth roughly $12,000 — that Lee also was subject to.
“There have been some adjustments,” Lee said, “but do I make $200,000? Absolutely not.”
The superintendent also rebutted the claim of excessive raises by pointing out that only the new chief officer positions received pay increases — something that Lee claims she had no direct control over.
“The highest raise was $10,000,” she said. “The board has already in place a local supplement, which is by position … when you talk about a chief, you’re going to have to have an additional five (thousand) — that’s just how it’s done.”
Lee also explained that some staff members also were entitled to step raises, based on length of education service within the district or the state.
“That’s something I have nothing to do with — it’s not like, ‘You take this position, and I’m going to give you a raise,’” she said. “No, you take the position, it’s going to require an increase of the stipend, because you’re taking on more responsibilities and it’s time for you to get your step raise.”
Assumption of duties aside, there still seems to be a glaring disparity between administrative pay rates and teachers’ salaries. When asked whether she found it hard to justify such healthy salaries for administrators while teachers’ pay rates seem to have flatlined, Lee said no.
“It’s because of these (chief officers) that (teachers) are going to be in a position to get two furlough days back,” she said, pointing out that furlough days will decrease from six to four this year.
“I could very well have done a budget and not given those two days back,” she said. “My desire is to, over time, fix it so that there are no furlough days. … If these (chiefs) are going to do the job of two or three individuals, they’re certainly entitled to a raise.”
Lee also addressed a concern over “jobs she is creating at the central office.” In one example, Lee pointed out that the state allocates approximately $250,000 per year for professional development — money she said previously was not drawn down from the Georgia Department of Education.
“Part of having the professional-learning money is having someone to have oversight and facilitate the professional learning,” she said, adding that it’s a position the district was lacking, which led her to create the coordinator for professional learning job. She also emphasized that this is the difference between “creating” positions and filling positions that “existed before becoming.”
Another letter inquired into the nature of the funds used to provide meals to board members before meetings. Lee clarified that no educational funds have been used for expenditures such as board-member meals.
“What I did is ask different businesses to become district partners,” Lee said. “These are the same people who sponsor the teacher of the year banquet — you can’t spend district money on that. Those are private donors.”
Lee claims that all expenditures under her watch have been in line with state- and federally-mandated regulations for school-district spending.
“The board established a budget — it’s required by law,” she said. “Different line items in the budget allow for certain appropriations. I haven’t spent any money.”