The department said it has concerns that the district has inflated the number of students who qualify for federal meal assistance and has not properly overseen federal grant programs. Much of the federal funding that school districts get is based on the number of poor students who qualify for federal meal assistance.
School district officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The district stands to lose about $10 million through the frozen funds. That would be significant for the district, which lists an operating budget of $114.8 million on its website. The district could still get the money if it clears up concerns.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the department's action is an extraordinary step without precedent in department memory. If a district takes federal funds and uses them in an inappropriate way, the state is on the hook to pay the money back.
"Our teams have been down there and worked with them and worked with them and worked with them," Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge told the Journal-Constitution. "They're not where they need to be."
State documents show that the Georgia Department of Education tried to investigate in late May after hearing about possible misuse of the federal meal assistance program. But department officials were denied access to program records when they visited the district, according to a letter the department wrote to Dougherty Schools Superintendent Joshua Murfree Jr.
The state warned in that letter that it could halt federal funds that are doled out to school districts based on the number of students who qualify for meal assistance.
State officials also had concerns about the district's oversight of other federal grant programs as well.
Dougherty gets money from the federal School Improvement Grant program, from a program created to assist homeless students and from the Race to the Top program. All programs require the district to prove that it is meeting program targets, but state officials said Dougherty refused to provide the detailed documentation.
The Dougherty funds that state officials are freezing include $1.6 million in SIG funds, $46,000 in homeless student funds and $8.36 million in other federal funds that are tied to the number of students who qualify for federal meal assistance.