CRENSHAW : Word of God School to Get County Funds

After operating on the brink of closure for six months because a dispute over county funding left it insolvent, the Word of God Alternative School finally got a good word: The county will pay, although it is unclear how much.

Principal Joshua Smith, who since November has been arguing that the county Department of Children's Services and Department of Social Services should pay tuition for 23 students whose eligibility the county questioned, was guardedly optimistic about the decision.

"All I want is the $15,000 that's owed to me so I can pay my teachers and some operating bills," he said. "I would like to close the book on this and continue on."

The county decided to offer Smith a settlement after officials from both county departments and the county counsel met last month.

Whether Smith will get the full $15,000 he requested is still uncertain.

Francis Louie, a program management consultant for the State Department of Education, investigated the matter after Smith repeatedly complained to him. The agency oversees disbursement of state funds to the Department of Children's Services.

Louie said that although he found that the county is not legally liable for the 23 students, it is still offering a settlement. "The department didn't do anything wrong," he said. "However, the kids in question may in fact be eligible (for funding). That hasn't been determined yet."

Smith said the settlement offer came as a surprise because county officials last month emphatically denied any financial responsibility for 23 students for whom Smith submitted paperwork last fall. Smith's private school, which serves mostly at-risk children and needy parents, relies heavily on government-funded child care programs to pay the $300 monthly student tuition.

Problems began when Smith failed to receive payments after several weeks and eventually learned that the county refused to pay because officials said the students had not been approved by county eligibility workers, and therefore the contracts submitted could not be honored.

Smith maintained that he had been assured by workers in the county financial department that he would be paid.

In the meantime, the school was forced to shut down except for the first grade, kindergarten and preschool. The student body fell from more than 100 students to 40.

Unable to meet its payroll, the school has been run for the last two months by three teachers and a few volunteers. Parents have pitched in, doing everything from pooling money to pay the school's utility bills to helping with administrative duties.

Myra Washington, who has coordinated the parent support, said parents staged a fashion and talent show last week at the South Park Recreation Center that raised about $1,500. The money will be donated to the teachers, who have not been paid since last year.

Kindergarten teacher Marie Hamilton said she has been hanging on simply because she feels the school is worthwhile.

"I'm hoping the problem is resolved soon," she said. "This school is really needed in the community."

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