Monday night was the first time participants in the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative officially met since two of their partners were mentioned in a lawsuit in December.
In the suit, former Chief Financial Officer Ron Collier claims he was punished for raising questions about a $1 million payment. The school district, a Macon Promise partner, paid the money to the Central Georgia Partnership For Individual and Community Development. That is another promise neighborhood partner.
According to an invoice from PICD, the money was supposed help renovate the old Ballard Hudson building on Anthony Road, and MPN planned to house their programs in that building.
Another version of the invoice says the $1 million fulfilled the school district's pledge to provide resources for 2012 that a federal grant was supposed to match.
But Cliffard Whitby, executive director of MPN says they never requested or received the $1 million, and that money is strictly between the school district and PICD.
The story gets more complex with reports Superintendent Romain Dallemand pledged almost $20 million over 10 years in school resources without the school board's knowledge.
That includes the district leasing half of the Ballard Hudson building from PICD for $5.75 million through 2023. That lease helped PICD secure a $4.8 million loan from the Urban Development Authority to fix up the old school.
Part of Collier's suit argues that lease is illegal. And, according to an audit report of the district's finances, the school board didn't approve the lease before it was signed.
Diana Glymph, chair of the initiative's advisory board, wanted to clear up the whole matter for the MPN partners at the Monday meeting.
"Give us your questions," she urged. "Lets get this out in the open. Lets talk about it. Lets clear it up."
She invited Jimmie Samuel, president of Central Georgia PICD to field questions. The only one came from Patricia Walker, whose nonprofit is also a Promise Neighborhood partner.
"When you talk about a million dollars, and you talk about a check and the fact that Promise Neighborhood was going to have a physical location that involved that million dollars and that check, I was concerned about how that impacts us going forward," she said.
Samuel wouldn't address the lease or the million-dollar check because, he said, it's part of pending litigation. But he did try to defend his group.
"PICD, we've been transparent above board," he said. "If you've ever been through one of these bond things, everybody and their momma looks at it. The judge has to approve it, the bank has to approve it, the DA has to approve it. It's all above board."
Glymph added, in response to Walker, Macon Promise didn't see a penny of that one million dollars.
"The controversy is not about the families and it's not about the services to the families," she said. "It is an outside controversy that is tied to a project within the Promise Neighborhoods and would be an asset to our work, but the work is going on with or without the Macon Promise Center."
Glymph said the negative attention has raised doubts among MPN partners and community members.
"Honestly the residents are concerned that with this media coverage that the agencies and the services are going to say, 'we can't do this anymore,' and we're here to say today that's not what's going to happen."
Mayor Robert Reichert, representing the city of Macon in the partnership, also complained about the media coverage, specifically a January 13 article in the Macon Telegraph.
"Chairman Hart and I, and president Underwood and president Ivan Allen from Central Georgia Technical College, went to see the editorial board at the Macon Telegraph," said Reichert.
"Their biggest reason for writing the initial article that they did was that they didn't have all the information, and the board of education wouldn't provide it to them. Well, I don't think that gives them the license to write a misleading article of unparalleled length. It went on forever, and yet no conclusion-- just innuendo."
MPN community advocate Marna Cooper said she was surprised when she heard the reports, but she soon found the silver lining.
"I said, 'Wow, OK, this could be a good thing,' because all this publicity is really gonna make my job a lot easier. All the residents in my neighborhood are going to know about Promise Neighborhood and what they are trying to do," said Cooper
Reichert challenged the partners to look at the situation in a similarly positive way, move past the media reports, and attack their goals with more vigor.
"It would restore pride. It would restore hope it would break the cycle of inter-generational poverty which has been gripping us and pulling us down. Don't give up! Nobody said it was going to be easy. Don't give up," urged Reichert.
Glymph said Promise Neighborhood is nowhere near giving up. They plan to reapply for a $30 million grant over five years to implement initiatives they've determined are need in the Unionville and Tindall Heights Neighborhoods.
In the mean time, they have several initiatives in the works; one partner has secured funding for a school-based health center at Ingram-Pye elementary. There are 70 tutors and 52 mentors from Mercer and Central Georgia Tech working with students, and Central Georgia counseling services is offering counseling for families in the neighborhood through the initiative.
"I am determined that we are going to move forward," said Glymph. "We are not going to let this be a throw away neighborhood. It's not going to be a neighborhood that has had some promises made, and then those promises drop when we reach a little bit of controversy."