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Published in Print: September 5, 2001, as Missing $400,000 Spells Bankruptcy For Staff Trainers

Missing $400,000 Spells Bankruptcy For Staff Trainers

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The National Faculty, a provider of professional development for teachers since 1968, has closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy after the discovery of an apparent embezzlement scheme.

The board of directors of the Atlanta-based nonprofit organization voted on Aug. 6 to close up shop after learning that its major funder, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had frozen the group's funding, President Robert J. Baird said. He said the federal agency acted after the National Faculty informed it that some $400,000 had apparently been stolen earlier this summer.

News of the situation "devastated" the organization's staff of 34, Mr. Baird said. "We were serving teachers in a way that we believed made a significant difference in what they could do in class," he said."The loss of the National Faculty is not something that will recede in my memory for a very, very long time."

With its name derived from its work matching college and university faculty members with precollegiate classroom teachers, the organization focused on helping teachers build their subject-matter knowledge. Some 1,500 faculty members worked as consultants to more than 750 teachers a year around the country, according to Mr. Baird.

This summer alone, about 500 teachers participated in 25 professional-development programs run by the National Faculty at 15 sites. The professors helped K-12 administrators and teachers understand standardized-test data, align curricula with academic standards, and strengthen their mastery of their subjects, for example.

Funding for the organization's $4.9 million annual budget was provided in part by the Agriculture Department, private foundations, and school districts, Mr. Baird said. The federal contribution made up 75 percent of the budget.

The loss of the National Faculty is a terrible one, said Diana Rigden, a vice president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based group that promotes the teaching of core academic subjects.

Ms. Rigden, who is also the director of a teacher education project at the council, said the National Faculty was one of the few providers of professional development that effectively melded the worlds of K-12 and higher education. In an era in which most professional development focuses on how to teach, she said, the Atlanta group provided instruction on what to teach by offering physicists, chemists, and experts in English literature to share their knowledge with precollegiate educators.

"I don't know of any other organization that focuses on bringing disciplined-based faculty together with teachers the way the National Faculty has," Ms. Rigden said.

The news quickly filtered down to district administrators who were involved in partnerships with the organization.

"We have held the National Faculty in high regard for the quality of staff development they offered," said Marie Adair, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the 10,000-student Vineland, N.J., district, where the group was working this summer.

The organization "provided new learning followed by coaching, practice, and reflection," she said. "It is that cycle that changes instructional patterns."

Fortunately, Ms. Adair said, the school district has found the money to continue the third and final year of the program and will subcontract with the staff members originally employed by the National Faculty.

'Devastating'

Other districts, however, say they can't afford to follow suit.

The 560-student Altheimer district in Arkansas, located 50 miles southeast of Little Rock, had expected the National Faculty to pay for a weeklong professional-development retreat before the announcement. The district went ahead with the forum, using staff administrators.

But the district will now be forced to dig deep into its budget to pay the tab—a cost of between $18,000 and $20,000, said Superintendent Thelma R. Cook. The National Faculty subsidized much of its work, requiring only minimal contributions from school districts. Some programs were offered through competitive grants, while others were paid for by state governments.

Altheimer officials likely won't have more money to pay for additional professional development, Ms. Cook said. "It is going to be devastating," she said. "We are dependent upon them to help us make the program improvements needed to get off the [state] academic-distress list. They provided us with extensive professional development to do that."

Arrest Warrant

Atlanta police, meanwhile, said that Janice M. Sanders, 36, the organization's accounting and personnel manager, allegedly stole the money, which Mr. Baird says totals some $400,000, over the past year or so. Police have issued a warrant for her arrest, Officer John P. Quigley, a spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department, said last week.

The problem was discovered in July, when a credit card company got in touch with the National Faculty about Ms. Sanders' outstanding personal bills, prompting administrators to explore the organization's records, Mr. Baird said. According to Mr. Baird, the inquiry turned up evidence of fraudulently signed checks and tampering with the nonprofit's computer banking system. When called on her cellular phone last week and asked about the allegations, Ms. Sanders replied that they "are news to me," before abruptly hanging up.

The Agriculture Department and the National Faculty are continuing to investigate. Ms. Sanders was placed on administrative leave without pay after the money was discovered to be missing.

Mr. Baird said he hopes to preserve the work of the National Faculty and will continue to push for high-quality professional development. "I'm committed to keeping the mission and purpose of the organization going in whatever I do," he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 1, Pages 1,19

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