Local government, Schools

Nyssa’s migrant student program shrinks in face of continuing state investigation

Enrollment in Nyssa’s migrant education program has plummeted in the face of a state investigation that found problems that represent “a documented history of unsatisfactory performance.”

Investigators found the Nyssa School District had been enrolling students into the migrant program who weren’t eligible. The district collects extra funds for each student.

The Oregon Department of Education recently notified district officials that an outside review confirmed earlier findings of mismanagement at the district.

For now, Nyssa is barred from recruiting more students to the program. Vale and Adrian districts, which rely on Nyssa to manage the program for them, face the same limit.

That means an undetermined number of students who come from migrant families are blocked from getting help intended to overcome the impacts of a transient life.

According to the Nyssa School District, the program now serves 421. Last year, it reported enrollment of 701.

“We are still working with ODE to make sure we understand all aspects of their findings.”

–Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent

The state education agency is working with federal officials to decide what action to take against the Nyssa district, which in the current year budgeted about $900,000 in revenue from the program.

Darren Johnson, Nyssa school superintendent, initially scheduled an interview with the Enterprise concerning the investigation that has been underway for more than a year. He canceled and then asked for written questions. Rather than address the questions, Johnson on Friday, Oct. 21, issued a press release that appeared to absolve him or the district of any blame.

He didn’t address whether findings that ineligible families had been enrolled resulted from corruption or incompetence.

Families are eligible for extra services if they work in agriculture and have moved in the previous three years to pursue such employment. School officials complete “certificates of eligibility” that establish a family’s circumstances to allow their children into the program.

State officials shared initial findings with the Nyssa district last March and more detailed reports since then have disclosed more evidence of mismanagement.

But Johnson said in his statement Friday that he was not yet taking action.

“We are still working with ODE to make sure we understand all aspects of their findings before making any personnel decisions or recruitments of migrant families,” Johnson wrote.

He similarly said in August that he was working to understand the state findings presented to him then. He said then he was conducting an internal investigation.

Johnson said in his press statement on Friday that the district was cooperating with state officials.

He didn’t directly address the state’s most recent findings but defended himself.

“The Nyssa School District, during the time I have been here as superintendent, has always complied with training sessions and audits,” he wrote.

The state’s latest report indicated a sweeping problem that Johnson has yet to publicly address.

Auditors wanted to review 512 student enrollments from the last school year but they couldn’t determine whether 170 were eligible because “families couldn’t be reached or insufficient information.”

Auditors did interview families of 342 children to assess information in Nyssa’s files about the families and their migrant status.

“Nearly a third of the families were determined to be ineligible,” the state wrote in its Oct. 14 letter to Johnson.

One-fourth of eligibility certificates had errors or misrepresented the family’s status, including that “33 families mentioned they have never moved.”

Another 15 “went to other areas for short periods for vacation purposes” ­– not the kind of moving that qualifies migrant families for extra benefits.

Auditors found that three individuals questioned about their program participation said “they were employed by a local school district, making unclear their economic necessary to engage in qualifying agricultural work.” The employing districts weren’t identified.

The state letter said that the Nyssa district’s performance was triggering a review of the eligibility for the students currently in the migrant education program. The letter reminded Johnson that his district had been classified as “high risk” for its migrant program management, including “a documented history of unsatisfactory performance.”

The state advised Johnson that the education agency was consulting with the state Justice Department and federal authorities “regarding appropriate correction action necessary.”

Meantime, Johnson said in his press statement, “We are focusing on creating a school environment in which every young person can learn and thrive.”

He said the district “unequivocally supports its staff and educators” and asked district patrons to “focus on support for staff, students, educators and families ­– the basics of what our district does well.”

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]