By Greg Bird
The McCreary County School District apparently has a lot of work ahead as the administration tries to make several corrections to how its federal grant programs are administered and money is spent.
As reported last week the District was subject to a Consolidated Monitoring Visit by the Kentucky Department of Education in January, which consisted of a review of federal grant programs, such as Title I, Title II and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The purpose was to look how the District was following required guidelines in spending the grant allocations and implementation of the programs supported through the funding.
The team found several instances of non-compliance, not only in spending, but also practices and issued a lengthy report detailing their findings, including requiring the District to refund over $190,000 to the KDE due to the inappropriate spending.
The Voice reviewed over 130 pages of documents obtained through an open records request and presents the following summary of the findings by the KDE.
While the report was called “scathing” by at least one member of the McCreary County Board of Education, and resulted in the elimination of the Assistant Superintendent position, there were some positives to be found in the documents.
The report summary states the District was trying to do right by the students, and has expressed strong evidence that the issues will be corrected quickly.
“The district faces both challenges and opportunities moving forward,” the report concludes. “Despite the challenges, it was evident to the monitoring teams the superintendent and school principals have the students’ best interests at heart. The teams also noted strengths upon which the district can build. By strengthening relationships and trust with families and the community, implementing a system of internal controls, improving communication, establishing a system of professional development and documenting and following policies and procedures, the district can increase the effectiveness of all programs. The KDE monitoring teams appreciate the cooperation and responsiveness of the district staff.”
Nowhere in the report were any allegations that the money spent outside of allowed expenses were not spent, in some fashion, on students or toward betterment of the District. The majority of the issues appear to stem from a lack of direction from the Assistant Superintendent, who oversaw most of the programs, and some attempts to re-code the expenses to justify some of the expenses to use federal funding instead of other sources.
Much of the payback is due to money being spent on items and salaries not approved under the parameters of the grants, and outside of the District’s applications for the funding. The team of reviewers found several instances where money was spent on items such as food and reward programs. Some of the grant provisions do allow for some of those items, but in the District’s case, most of the expenditures were outside of the limits of the grant. Other spending, such as salaries for a band and choir teacher, were not included in the District’s grant applications, and thus unallowable.
About $130,000 will have to be repaid that was spent through Title I inappropriately. Title I funding provides financial assistance to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.
The report conducted a review of Title I funding for all schools and the District. The findings for the schools noted they do not strategically use their needs assessments to prioritize how they spend Title I funds, do not review the programs and did not receive any support from at the District level. They also failed to hold required annual meetings with parents to give them an opportunity to review and help shape the programs.
Some of the unallowed expenses included: $14,000 for computers and other computer equipment. The report states two computers were purchased for people who only work 65-percent of the time on Title I programs, so the District will have to pay back 35 percent of the cost. Another computer, for which no indication of where it is used was found, as well as other equipment like monitors, a television, sound bar and training costs must be fully reimbursed since the costs do not meet the intent of the Title I program.
$20,000 for chromebooks for students. The KDE determined the computers were used as reward programs for students, something not permitted under the conditions of the funding. If the District can verify the expense was aligned to the grant requirements, the cost would be forgiven.
Over $28,000 was spent on food, such as rewards, Easter candy, meals on retreats and desserts. Over $42,000 on changing tables, cots and other preschool equipment, as well as desks and chairs for the McCreary Academy, and other furniture.
The District will also have to repay nearly $4,000 that was spent on ReadyFest supplies, and a dental bus for the event. That money came out of allocations for homeless students, which were not allowed to be spent on all students.
About $72,000 will be repaid to Title IV, which is designed to support educational activities. While some of the spending by the District in this area does fall within the parameters of the grant, much of them were not approved or part of the original needs assessment produced by the District. Those include $12,000 for salaries of a band and choir teacher. The report states the Title IV Coordinator, Assistant Superintendent Aaron Anderson, indicated the salaries were paid for by the Board of Education. The investigators found the expense was re-coded in the District’s budget to the Title VI fund on the last day of the grant allocation. $12,000 was spent on technology supplies through the “effective use of technology” section of the grant. However, the spending was not approved or allowed, and also re-coded on the final day of the grant. Over $10,000 on Halloween candy, also not approved, allowed and re-coded.
The District spent $5,4000 on School Resource Officer salaries and benefits while they were on unpaid leave to attend training. That expense was not allowed. Over $24,000 on band instruments and repairs that were not part of the District needs assessment.
In addition to the money to be paid back to the KDE, the following criteria must be met to keep existing funding and to remain eligible for future funding.
The District will be required to submit quarterly financial reports with more detailed information, including down to the individual purchase order level. Additional project monitoring will be initiated, with District staff meeting regularly with KDE officials to discuss progress towards resolving monitoring findings and the district’s quarterly, detailed financial reports. The KDE will require district staff, including the superintendent, finance officer, district homeless liaison, and district coordinator to attend professional development related to the administration of federal education programs. Finally, the KDE requires the District to submit for prior approval and expenditures that are significant changes to the original program applications.
The report also listed several instances of non-compliance in other areas that need to be addressed by the District.
The preschool consolidated monitoring report found several issues of non-compliance after interviewing staff and reviewing documents. Among the issues found were: While the preschool instructors did participate in professional development, the training was not specified toward the needs of preschool age students or their families. On at least three occasions the inspectors found teachers supervising groups of over 10 students without a required assistant or aid in the classroom. Playground equipment and space at both Pine Knot and Whitley City Elementary was found to be inadequate or hazardous. Students at WCE were found using worksheets, which are not to regulation for students that age. At least 15 student record folders did not have required documentation such as birth certificates. No home visits of preschool students were conducted, in violation of Kentucky statutes.
MCHS, MCMS, PKE and WCE had Title I reviews as well and the team of reviewers found the schools do not strategically use their needs assessments to prioritize how the funding is spent. They also did not conduct reviews of the programs to revise their assessments and did not receive support at the District level to do so. They also failed to hold annual parent meetings to allow stakeholders to review the programs offered.
The McCreary Academy was also reviewed, and in addition to similar findings, the investigators also noted there were no evidence of needs assessment reviews and no plan to describe how the school will improve academic achievement for the students. The review recommended the District make changes to the program, or dissolve the school, which the Board of Education did at their last meeting.
The team reviewed the IDEA program, and found several positives, but also found concerns in data keeping and use of sensory rooms.
“The monitoring team observed a positive climate in the schools and felt welcomed throughout the visit,” the report stated. “The district has shown a commitment to improving student outcomes through its partnership with the University of Louisville’s Academic and Behavioral Response to Intervention (ABRI) project with Pine Knott Elementary. The district is commended for taking this step and is strongly encouraged to expand the ABRI work to all schools in the district. Additionally, the district has made efforts to provide services and resources for students with trauma and other forms of anxiety by bringing in outside specialists including contracted counselors and therapists.”
For many of the issues documented by the report, the District has until June 30 to pay back the funding and have a plan of action approved by the KDE to correct and make changes to the programs.
The District, under Superintendent Corey Keith, has already made formative changes to address the issues, including creating a Director of Federal Programs position to oversee all of the grant funding. Superintendent Keith also said he would be meeting regularly with District staff and principals to ensure the corrections are being made and all expenditures over $250 are approved prior to being spent.