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Published in Print: May 17, 2006, as Former Georgia Schools Chief Pleads Guilty to Fraud, Money Laundering

Former Georgia Schools Chief Pleads Guilty to Fraud, Money Laundering

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Georgia’s former state schools superintendent—a political maverick who once aspired to be governor—is now slated to serve as many years in prison as she did in the top education post.

Linda C. Schrenko, 56, pleaded guilty this week to one count each of money laundering and fraud. She would serve eight years in federal prison under the plea bargain. Her plea came in the midst of her trial in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on 40 counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud, and theft of public funds. She was accused of diverting roughly $600,000 in federal education money to her unsuccessful 2002 campaign for governor. She was facing a possible 25-year sentence.

Former Georgia schools superintendent Linda Schrenko walks out of federal court in Atlanta on May 10. Ms. Schrenko, who pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering, will serve eight years in prison as part of a plea bargain.
Former Georgia schools superintendent Linda Schrenko walks out of federal court in Atlanta on May 10. Ms. Schrenko, who pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering, will serve eight years in prison as part of a plea bargain.
—AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser

Some of the funds—which were meant for hearing-impaired and honor students—were also used for personal expenses, including a computer and a face-lift, prosecutors maintained in court.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper is scheduled to hold a sentencing hearing July 12, at which Ms. Schrenko will also learn how much restitution she has to pay to the state.

The trial continued this week for her two co-defendants, A. Stephen Botes and Peter Steyn, both of whom were associated with a computer-consulting company that was seeking a contract with the state education department while Ms. Schrenko was in office.

The two were accused of helping the former superintendent funnel a series of checks into her campaign fund. She was running in the Republican primary, which was won by Sonny Perdue, who went on to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Roy Barnes.

Meanwhile this week, Merle Temple, who worked for Ms. Schrenko as the deputy state superintendent, was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Temple, who pleaded guilty last year to helping funnel the federal money into Ms. Schrenko’s campaign, was planning to rehearse the answers that Ms. Schrenko’s lawyer might ask him in court.

Mr. Temple, who has been described in court as Ms. Schrenko’s lover and reportedly drove her to a hotel where she could recover after her cosmetic surgery, had been expected to be the star witness against the former superintendent.

Members of the state’s education community who worked with the Georgia education department during Ms. Schrenko’s tenure said this week they were eager to put the matter behind them.

Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, called the court deal “a fitting ending to an extremely sad chapter in the history of public education in Georgia.”

A Rocky Tenure

Ms. Schrenko, a former elementary school teacher and principal from Augusta, Ga., made history in 1994 when she became the first woman elected to a statewide office—and the first Republican to hold the superintendent’s job since the Reconstruction era. She ousted incumbent Werner Rogers. After a first term marked by controversy, she defied the odds again and was re-elected in 1998.

A self-proclaimed outsider, Ms. Schrenko promised to reduce bureaucracy in the state education department and give parents more control over their local schools.

Her words obviously resonated with voters, but her eight years in office featured one seemingly avoidable flap after another that left her with few allies or major accomplishments. In 1997, she raised hackles when she called the PTA a “liberal organization” and said she disagreed with many of the national association’s views on education. She similarly alienated the state’s main education groups.

In 1995, she pulled out of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, citing differences with some of the positions of the CCSSO. She later accused the group of “petty, partisan politics” when it wouldn’t allow her to attend a National Teacher of the Year ceremony it hosted in 1999 honoring a kindergarten teacher from Georgia.

During her first term, she also waged an ongoing battle with members of the state board of education. Monthly board meetings grew so contentious that then-Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, asked every member—most of whom he had hand-picked—to step down so he could appoint new members who would be more willing to work with Ms. Schrenko.

When Mr. Barnes became governor in 1999 and launched a school improvement initiative, Ms. Schrenko described it as a “power grab” and an effort to take her job away from her.

As the end of her second term approached, local school officials complained that they couldn’t work with her department. Ms. Schrenko was rarely seen at her office and often didn’t attend state board meetings.

When Republican Kathy B. Cox took over the superintendency in 2003, one of her first priorities, she said, was to restore the broken relationship between the state education community and the department.

PHOTO: Former Georgia schools superintendent Linda Schrenko walks out of federal court in Atlanta on May 10. Ms. Schrenko, who pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering, will serve eight years in prison as part of a plea bargain.
—AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser

Vol. 25, Issue 37, Page 18

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