Schools, Special Reports

Probe finds residents enrolled in Nyssa’s migrant education program

(The Enterprise/FILE)

NYSSA – Families who have lived in Nyssa for years were enrolled in a program intended to help migrant students who move from school district to school district, according to documents obtained by the Enterprise.

The Nyssa School District is under investigation by state authorities for potentially illegal actions within the Migrant Education Program, which awards extra funding to school systems serving migrant students.

Under the program, families can get extra school benefits if they have moved within the past three years and parents are temporary or seasonal workers in agriculture.

But a state review last year of 100 families in the Nyssa program found discrepancies significant enough to remove 19 families and launch a still-unfolding investigation of the program, examining the eligibility of all 512 families enrolled.

The Nyssa School District is expecting $912,000 this year in payments for serving what it represents to the state are migrant students.

Documents obtained by the Enterprise through a public records request to the Oregon Department of Education revealed that investigators are questioning the participation of school district employees in the program.

“Initial findings and information indicate children of Nyssa School District personnel are participating,” according to a report from August 2021 obtained by the Enterprise through a public records request.

Among district employees identified in the records were Ryan Hawkins, director of operations, and Gabe Fuentes, supervisor of Nyssa’s migrant education program.

Hawkins said Monday he wasn’t available to comment by press time.

Fuentes said “No comment at this time,” in a June 8 email to the Enterprise.

Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, notified state officials in a March 29 email that he was naming Fuentes “to be the point on this investigation.”

In response to written questions, Johnson responded Friday, June 10, that “I will not comment on individuals” because of the continuing investigation.

The records also show there were questionable submissions of the certificates that establish eligibility to be in the program.

Even though participation is restricted to those who moved within three years, records show that reviewers found instance after instance when that qualification appears to have been violated.

“They said they have not made any moves since 2007,” a reviewer recounted of interviewing one family. “They go to Wilder, ID to visit family but return the same day since it is only 20 minutes away.”

Another family “said that the last time the family moved was from Ontario, OR to Nyssa, OR in 2007. Spouse has always worked for the same farm and does not stop throughout the year,” an interview summary said.

Reviewers also found questionable instances in program paperwork reporting families moving to or from Washington state.

“I asked if they have ever lived in Washington or anywhere else in the past three years, and their answer was no,” the reviewer wrote.

In another case, a reviewer asked a family that reported living in Nyssa for 11 years about being in Washington.

“They said they have never been there,” the reviewer reported.

“The number of families who moved from Washington to Nyssa reported by Nyssa shows a lot more than the nine reported by the state of Washington,” according to an Aug. 23, 2021, report on initial findings.

Reviewers also recounted one parent had never worked in agriculture. In one instance, parents reported that their student, listed as enrolled in the Nyssa program last year, had graduated in 2020 and was attending college.

The investigation is considering whether the certificates were falsified by program employees. State officials examined the certificates of eligibility, “confirming the suspicion that COEs were being copied from one COE to another.”

The records show the investigation was triggered when a whistleblower reached out to authorities to complain about misconduct in Nyssa’s program. The whistleblower, not identified in the documents, “mentioned not wanting to be part of a program where people were performing illegal acts and including ineligible children.”

The state relied on electronic files to review Nyssa’s program, deciding last fall to interview a sampling of 100 families enrolled in the program.

In late March, state officials alerted Johnson to basic findings. The Vale and Adrian school districts also have students in the program, but Nyssa manages it for all three.

“We all felt your pain as we shared the unfortunate news,” Sara Green, a state education official wrote in an April 1 email to the superintendents. “It was not easy to deliver and not easy to hear. As we noted, it will be a bumpy marathon and we welcome the collaboration with you as we move forward together.”

An elaborate investigation has since unfolded, involving the Education Department, the Oregon Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education.

State education officials declined to answer whether other school systems in Oregon have been confronted with similar issues.

A team of four reviewers were brought in to interview every family participating in Nyssa’s program. The reviewers – from Idaho, Washington, Illinois and Georgia – are finishing their interviews remotely in a process that could take three months, according to Johnson, the Nyssa superintendent.

Their findings will be turned over to an independent panel outside Oregon to consider student eligibility to participate. The panel will submit findings to the Education Department.

Johnson said that meantime he has not initiated any internal review of his program “because the main audit is ongoing.”

He said he already has advised the Nyssa School Board “about potential repayment of funds” received for students who aren’t eligible.

“While the district is in a good financial position, the possibility of repaying a large amount would be a challenge to our budget,” Johnson said.

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