NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For the last year, the state of Tennessee has been tightening its belt -- and even more budget cuts are now on the way.
But, in an exclusive "You Paid for It" investigation, NewsChannel 5 found hundreds of thousands of dollars that the state had apparently forgotten.
It was money owed to the Tennessee Department of Children Services.
Instead of waiting until after graduation, DCS wanted to develop trained social workers while they were still in school.
The deal for students like Jonathan Allen and Charity Kimbrell was that the state paid tuition and expenses for their last two years of college. In return, they agreed to work for the DCS for two years.
"By the time I got a job here, I was already in the know of what to do, how the things worked, and it really prepared you for what you were going to face," Allen told NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
Kimbrell added, "If there was one thing that they made crystal clear to us is, in the event that we did not fulfil our obligation, we would be paying the money back."
Phyllis Pope-Stephens tapped into that money.
"You want me to give something that I just can't give," Pope-Stephens said when confronted by Williams.
"Well, you signed this contract," Williams noted.
"Let's see what I signed."
While she was a student in Tennessee State University's social work program, the state paid her $14,000 for her last three semesters.
She went to work for DCS in 2007, but quit just over a month later -- according to her file -- because she got another job.
"You had an obligation to work for the state," Williams told her.
"And I went to work for the state," Pope-Stephens answered.
"And then you quit when you got a better job."
"Who told you that?"
"That's what your record shows."
"Is that what my record shows?"
DCS Commissioner Viola Miller says, even after someone graduates from the program, no one forces them to work for the state.
"What I want is [for] those people to give the time to the public child welfare system, but if they don't if they chose to go work somewhere else, then they owe the money back to the state," Miller said.
And there were other graduates who also got the money without having to do the job. One student got $24,000, but was fired while on probation. Another got $33,000 for her bachelors and masters degrees. She was also terminated.
And another graduate, who got $18,000 of the state's money, quit after just four months, saying she felt "disrespected" by her supervisor.
"Is that an excuse?" Williams asked the DCS commissioner.
"Certainly, not for me, it isn't," Miller responded.
Altogether, about 50 students have just walked away, taking with them a half a million dollars of your money. But get this: the state had not even bothered trying to collect that money until after NewsChannel 5 began to investigate.
Miller said, "I think there were a lot of, you know... any new program has issues that you have to work your way through. I'm not making any excuses. They probably should have started more quickly than they did."
Tax watchdog Ben Cunningham wonders why it took two years.
"It just sends the wrong message to everybody," said Cunningham, who heads Tennessee Tax Revolt. "To these students, it says you can borrow money from the taxpayers and nobody's going to follow up, nobody cares what happens to this money."
Williams asked Miller, "Did someone drop the ball?"
"I don't know," she answered. "Could they have been more efficient? Yes. Was it just a matter of priorities? Probably."
Cunningham said, "If this simple program that is very simple to administer and very simple to hold people accountable, if this program is being mismanaged, what is going on with the billions of dollars of other programs in state government. That's the problem."
Williams asked Phyllis Pope-Stephens, "Are you going to pay the money?"
"Who says I haven't paid the money?" the former student answered.
"Have I? You've got all the answers."
After NewsChannel 5 began investigating, Pope-Stephens asked the state to forgive her obligation, writing: "I would hope that you will consider the fact that I am committed to the betterment of our state and our country, and I worked hard to achieve my degree."
Miller wasn't swayed.
"There is nothing altruistic about this program," she explained. "This program is to build the workforce in the department of children's services -- pure and simple."
That's why the commissioner says, in these tough times, it's more important than ever to make sure that the training program is handled with honors.
DCS officials say they've now sent out collection letters and, in some cases, graduates are working out payment plans.