In the community, Schools, Special Reports

State presses investigation into Nyssa’s migrant education program with fraud possible

Troubles are deepening for the Nyssa School District over its migrant education program, with possible fraud found by investigators and a continuing suspension of adding any new migrant students.

The Oregon Department of Education is putting the Nyssa district in a “high risk” category after preliminary findings established the district was getting special federal funding for students it wrongly claimed were migrants.

The state agency also notified Nyssa officials last week that there was possible financial fraud at the district and that audits are likely to be ordered.

Education Department officials last week released to the Enterprise two letters issued Aug. 8 to Superintendent Darren Johnson. The letters signed by Colt Gill, director of the Education Department, described new findings of the continuing investigation.

“I am conducting my own internal investigations based on the email and letters received from ODE.”

Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent

The Nyssa School District runs a regional program intended to give children in migrant families a full education despite the moves of their parents for agricultural work. The Vale and Adrian School Districts participate but leave management of the program to Nyssa officials.

State officials said all three districts would have to pause recruiting any new families to the program. The hold was put in place earlier this year, meaning that migrant families moving into those districts in recent months won’t have access to the special programs for their children.

READ IT: State’s letter to Nyssa School District

And the Nyssa district is at risk of having to repay money it has collected for enrolling students who aren’t in migrant families. Nyssa expected to get $900,000 for the program in the 2021-2022 budget cycle, and investigators have found the district has been collecting for ineligible students for several years.

Johnson declined an interview and said in an email to the Enterprise he was waiting to meet with state officials to get a better understanding of last week’s notices.

“I am conducting my own internal investigations based on the email and letters received from ODE,” Johnson wrote. “All results from that investigation have not yet been determined, therefore I cannot make any comments on things yet to be discovered.”  

At issue is a federal program intended to give migrant families extra help to educate their children despite moving from place to place. To qualify, parents must be employed in certain farming occupations and have moved in recent years.

The state, in concert with officials at the U.S. Department of Education, began investigating the Nyssa program last fall. An initial review of 100 families in the Nyssa program found 19 weren’t eligible, a high enough rate to trigger a deeper investigation.

State still seeking more families

According to the state letter, reviewers recently made preliminary findings that 93 out of 346 families enrolled in the Nyssa program weren’t eligible. State officials so far have been unsuccessful in reaching all 512 families involved in the program in the last school year.

“A significant number of families were unreachable despite multiple attempts,” according to an email from Marc Siegel, Education Department communications director. He was responding to written questions from the Enterprise.

The state said in one of the Aug. 8 letters that “it became clear that multiple families had no knowledge of the migrant education program or knew that their child was enrolled in the program.”

The district puts students into the program with a “certificate of eligibility” that establishes their migrant status. The Education Department’s letter said that “tampering or altering” such certificates or enrolling a student without their knowledge “may be considered fraud.”
The state also notified Johnson as it had earlier this year that “children of district leaders were found to be enrolled in the migrant education program though they do not meet eligibility criteria.”

In an email last week, state officials identified two of the leaders. They said Ryan Hawkins, district director of operations, and Gabe Fuentes, who manages the migrant program, had certificates of eligibility for their families.

Hawkins declined comment earlier this year and Fuentes told the Enterprise by email that his family had not had a certificate for program participation since 2011.

Misuse of funds

Johnson earlier this year put Fuentes in charging of the district’s responses to state education officials.

The state’s letter also reported to Johnson that there had been “allegations from multiple complainants about improper use of migrant education funds and possible misuse of other federal funds.”

The letter cited without detail that a vehicle bought with migrant education funds “was used for personal and unauthorized use” and that a district kitchen was paid for with migrant funds. The letter said a complainant raised concerns about “possible misuse of funds in other federal programs.”

The state also said there was information about “improper summer school participation by non-immigrant students.” The letter said the Nyssa district was charging $200 for non-migrant students and special education students to participate in summer programs that supposed to be limited to migrant students.

Siegel of the Education Department said in an email that the Nyssa district had charged 57 students the program fee for this summer.

“The cost per student for the migrant summer program is approximately $800.80 per student with these funds earmarked specifically to serve migrant program eligible students,” Siegel wrote. “The $200 per student cost of the non-migrant summer school participants does not cover all the expenses and ultimately infringes on the program for migrant students.”

Training mandated

The Education Department directed the Nyssa district to “remove all ineligible students” and to “contact the families in the program about their eligibility status.”

The agency also directed Nyssa to arrange mandatory training for those involved in the migrant education program “including the school district superintendent.”

Johnson in a May 10 email to Gill, “I suppose, as the director of the program, I am under some level of scrutiny. I’m an open book and willing to do whatever is asked or discovered through this process.”

The state directed district officials to respond by Thursday, Aug 18, to the Education Department’s intention to order an audit of the Nyssa program. The district was advised it could response with “any measures” it has taken to address the allegations.

News tip? Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected]

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