School Showdown: Misuse of Title I funding

WSVN — Forty-two years of reading, writing and arithmetic didn’t add up for a Broward County principal. She says she was fired after speaking up about the school district’s misuse of federal funds. 7’s Belkys Nerey reports on our Nightteam special assignment report “School Showdown.”

In 1978, the first test tube baby was born, and a dozen eggs cost 48 cents. It’s also the year Mary Lou Ridge began her teaching career in Broward County.

Mary Lou Ridge, former Broward school principal: “I started out in South Plantation High School as a speech therapist.”

She would go on to teach special needs kids, until she was named the principal of Bethune Elementary, a low-income performing arts school in Hollywood.

Mary Lou Ridge: “My staff and I won three international awards, for the best innovative arts program in the United States and Canada.”

She loved helping the kids succeed in and out of the classroom.

Mary Lou Ridge: “We had toy drives at Christmas to help all of our families.”

Bethune Elementary is a Title I school, which means a majority of its students are underprivileged. The federal government gives the school money “to ensure all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high quality education.” The money must be used for things like smaller classes, individualized programs for students and teaching materials to enhance regular instruction.

But Mary Lou says, around 2010, she started to notice problems with her budget.

Mary Lou Ridge: “Generally, class teachers are paid out of our regular budget. If I needed 30 teachers, the district only funded me for 25, so it forced me to go into my federal funds and buy extra classroom teachers.”

Ridge says she knew that was wrong, so she brought it up to school officials.

Mary Lou Ridge: “After four meetings of standing up, and trying to make my point, I was sent a message via my director at that time ‘not to bring it up again.'”

But she did, during a meeting in 2014. Six months later, she was fired.

Peter Solnick, Mary Lou Ridge’s attorney: “We’re going to try and prove our case, that they not only terminated her for retaliatory reasons, but they also terminated Ms. Ridge because she was older, and they hired a much younger worker to replace her.”

Attorney Peter Solnick says it’s illegal to use Title I funds to hire regular classroom teachers, and that’s what she was forced to do.

Peter Solnick: “This county, Broward County Public Schools, were misusing Title I funds.”

Mary Lou says the year before she was let go, her school was not performing as well, but she doesn’t think that’s why she was fired.

Mary Lou Ridge: “We worked very hard to maintain our grade.”

We wanted to talk to Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, but our request was denied. Instead, we received a statement from his office which says: “This open lawsuit is being vigorously defended by the district’s legal department. Please note that the district does not comment on pending litigation.”

Mary Lou says, in spite of her legal battles with the district, her passion has always been the children, and that will never change.

Mary Lou Ridge: “I continue to work. I get up every day and tutor, and I enjoy that.”

The state recently completed its annual audit and found the Broward County School District may have misused $23 million of their Title I funds for the year 2014- 2015. The district denies it and now must provide the state with an explanation of the discrepancies.

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