Critics rap Nyssa board over improper enrollments in migrant education program

NYSSA — The Nyssa School Board faced tough questions during its Monday, Feb. 13, meeting over the district’s continued silence after state investigators found that 14 school workers had children improperly enrolled in its migrant education program. 

The federal program’s purpose is to give migrant families extra help to educate their children despite having to relocate continuously. Parents who qualify must be employed in certain farming occupations and have moved in recent years.

While the program is still operating for those who qualify for the services, the work of recruiting for the program is now run by a Salem organization at the cost of the Nyssa School District. 

Roberto Escobedo, a Nyssa city councilor, speaking on his own behalf, asked the board who would be held accountable for abusing the program.

Escobedo said in a Tuesday, Feb. 14 interview that he grew up working alongside his mother and grandparents, who were migrant workers moving from place to place. He said to see the Nyssa program abused by district employees and not be held accountable is offensive.

Among the district employees, the Oregon Department of Education found to have children improperly enrolled in the program was Ryan Hawkins, assistant superintendent of the Nyssa School District, according to a state report.

Escobedo told the Nyssa School Board that if the district’s migrant program director allowed one of the district’s administrators to abuse the migrant program or doesn’t know how to run the program, that person should not be in that position.

Escobedo said in a subsequent interview Tuesday, Feb. 14, that the district needed to fire Gabe Fuentes, the district’s program supervisor, regardless of whether he knew Hawkins and others had improperly enrolled their families.

“Ignorance is not an excuse,” Escobedo said during the Tuesday interview.

Escobedo said that the district had been silent about the state’s findings so far. 

“You have not addressed the community about anything,” Escobedo said to the board. “And (migrant workers) are not second-class citizens.” 

School district officials haven’t yet responded to a Wednesday, Feb. 15 request from the Enterprise for the district’s records about the program. The state education agency opened an investigation of the Nyssa district in July 2021. The move was triggered by some reporting “a concern regarding irregularities” in forms used to enroll in the program, called certificates of eligibility.

So far, in addition to the 14 district employees with 32 kids in the program, the state determined that Nyssa officials had enrolled a “significant number” of students in the program from families who had lived in Nyssa for years. 

Since then, the Education Department expanded its investigation in December, according to Marc Siegel, department communications director. The state said in December that it was seeking the records of all employees of the Nyssa, Vale and Adrian districts reaching back five years so the state “may further investigate” participation in the program.

According to Siegel, the scope of the investigation was in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, which is also involved in the Nyssa investigation.

The agency also is investigating expenditures in the migrant student program and four other Nyssa school programs. The state asked Nyssa to provide “all audits and expenditures” going back five years.

The Nyssa district faces the prospect of refunding money it received for the migrant program, which totals about $900,000 annually.

Siegel did not answer a written list of questions before press time.

Darren Johnson, Nyssa’s superintendent, who, last year, told ODE in a letter that it had opened up an internal investigation, said in an email on Tuesday, Feb. 14, that the district is cooperating with the investigating agencies. He said an internal investigation he announced last year in Nyssa’s probe would depend on the evidence uncovered by the Education Department and other agencies.

Johnson said he did not know when the investigation would conclude.

For his part, Hawkins declined to comment in a Friday text message and said he was not at the Monday board meeting. 

Fuentes did not answer a list of written questions before press time.  

Meanwhile, since January, the state has revoked Nyssa’s ability to recruit new students for its migrant education program. As a result, recruiting new students for the program has been outsourced to the Willamette Education Service District in Salem. Michael Clark, communications director for the district, said in January the cost to Nyssa could be $100,000.

CORRECTION: Roberto Escobedo, a Nyssa city councilor, told the Nyssa School Board that if the district’s migrant program director allowed one of the district’s administrators to abuse the migrant program or doesn’t know how to run the program, that person should not be in that position.
In a subsequent interview on Tuesday, Feb. 14, Escobedo explained he was referring to Gabe Fuentes, the migrant program supervisor and Ryan Hawkins, the district’s assistant superintendent.
An earlier edition of this story inaccurately reported that Escobedo identified the officials by name. The Enterprise apologizes for the error.

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.