Schools, Special Reports

Confusion and improper spending cloud the Nyssa migrant ed program

NYSSA—State officials found that Nyssa School District leaders have been confused about a program they have run for over 40 years, leaving migrant children underserved while children not eligible get help.

Newly-released public records also show state officials continue to have deep concerns about the district’s management of the migrant education program.

They also reveal that Superintendent Darren Johnson’s declaration last year that he was launching his own investigation ended with little action.

The Oregon Department of Education began an investigation of the Nyssa district in July 2021 after someone reported “a concern regarding irregularities” in forms used to enroll students in the program. The investigation continues as key elements of the program have been taken from the district to be handled by the state’s migrant education program.

The documents show Nyssa officials are suspect of the state’s actions, and Johnson accused the agency of “persecuting” school district officials.

The revelations come in internal documents released by the district in response to a public records request from the Enterprise. The district charged the Enterprise $370 to fulfill a Feb. 15 public record request for all emails, attachments, records, notes and memos received or sent by Darren Johnson, Nyssa district superintendent. The district has yet to provide additional documents requested more than a month ago.

Johnson initially failed to disclose the latest state report on its investigation, releasing the critical document after the Enterprise approached state officials to get it.

State officials have found that students who weren’t eligible were getting district benefits. That included children of at least 14 district employees.

Johnson is listed in migrant program documents as the program director. He didn’t produce any records bearing out an internal investigation of the district employees handling of the program despite his statement last August he was initiating such a probe saying in August that he had. 

Johnson said his investigation was a “simple” effort to see what he could find out from district employees regarding the state’s “initial allegations,” he explained in a March 16 email to the Enterprise.  

“It was not in-depth,” Johnson said. 

However, after speaking to district employees, he said it quickly became apparent that he needed the state to complete its investigation to give him more information before determining anything locally. So far, state investigators have found that 14 district employees had 32 children improperly enrolled in the migrant program. 

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

State officials have asked for detailed records dating back five years as they investigate. That included financial records, migrant staff records, including job descriptions, staff expenses and the number of migrant families and the quality of service provided to families in Nyssa, Vale and Adrian. 

Johnson and his staffers bristled at the oversight while gathering the information, according to internal documents obtained by the Enterprise. 

Crystal Rideau, Nyssa’s business manager, told Johnson in an email dated Feb.9 that she did not know she had to collect budget documentation from Vale and Adrian. She told Johnson she thought she had to process invoices to send to the state and nothing else. 

Johnson agreed in a Feb.10 response. 

“That’s always what I thought,” Johnson said. “I think they’re just trying to be annoying at this point to make it look like we haven’t done what we were supposed to even though this is the first time we’ve ever heard of this. They are being very effective in meeting their goal of persecuting us.” 

Johnson said the email exchange was out of frustration and being overwhelmed at the amount of work required to produce the documentation sought by the state. 

The email, he said, should not be taken as an indication that he isn’t taking responsibility for the mismanagement of the migrant program. 

“I want to take accountability for this situation –that is why we have cooperated with everything ODE has asked. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy to do or without frustration,” he said. 

State officials found that Nyssa did not have adequate procedures and oversight regarding the organization, planning, implementation, and division of duties so that migrant students in kindergarten were ready to learn, according to a March 3 state report. 

Missing, the report noted, was evidence of migrant student progress from kindergarten to high school, nor did the district produce documentation of any information on educational activities. Also, the district didn’t release student performance data. 

Nyssa must compile and produce this information unless the district disputes the findings. 

Through interviews and information submitted, the state found that Nyssa did not include opportunities for Vale and Adrian to analyze or plan the budget and spending plans. 

In a June 8, 2022, email, Alisha McBride wrote to Johnson after requesting a copy of Nyssa’s budget document for the region when it was announced that Nyssa had come under investigation. McBride questioned Johnson about Nyssa’s migrant preschool and asked why Vale families had not been given the opportunity to enroll their children. 

She wrote that at the time Nyssa employed two graduation specialists who had not served students in Vale.

Nyssa had a supplemental curriculum and an extended school day, among other services. McBride said that those services had yet to be offered to Vale students. 

“As I review the budget narrative, it is evident that Nyssa migrant students and families have access to significantly more services than Vale students and families,” McBride wrote. 

According to the state report, service logs kept by Nyssa officials did not reflect time to serving Nyssa, Vale and Adrian students. 

The report also pointed out that a superintendent survey administered by state officials revealed a “lack of consistent understanding” of the migrant program across the three districts. This lack of understanding, the state said, results in no coordination between the districts. 

In the report, state officials also reported interviewing district staff, program managers and school board members. None showed a “consistent understanding” of basic eligibility requirements for the Nyssa migrant program, the state report said. 

“There is a widespread misperception that working in agriculture is the only requirement for MEP eligibility,” the report said.

Additionally, the district submitted incomplete records about who was being paid to work in the migrant program, the state report said.

“The Migrant Education Program staffing document is incomplete and needs to include all staffing paid for with MEP funds, including tutors,” the state report noted. 

The state requested an updated list of tutors, graduation specialists and other staff dedicated to helping migrant students earn their diplomas. 

Preliminary financial review 

While the state has not conducted a complete financial audit, state investigators found nearly $20,000 in improper expenditures with migrant education funds. The Nyssa district gets just under $1 million a year from state and federal sources to run the program.

The report noted that the purchases were mainly for social activities, such as potlucks and holiday and graduation parties.

The investigation found that the Nyssa district improperly used migrant funds for two major purchases. 

 A $4,600 kitchen remodel listed as a “migrant kitchen remodel” was in fact for the Nyssa High School Culinary Arts Program. Another purchase, $6,975 for Plexiglass, was not an allowable purchase, the report noted. 

Other purchases lacked documentation. “There is no mention of purpose or need,” the report said. 

The state reported other questionable purchases, including cell phones and fuel and vehicle maintenance expenses.

Johnson did not directly answer questions from the Enterprise about the state’s findings. 

“We are not trying to hide information,” he said. “We are trying to cooperate with ODE, which means they control the narrative and we don’t want to appear uncooperative by creating our own narrative.” 

The district has until April 3 to dispute items in the report.  

As the investigation continues, he said the district would have the opportunity to give its input back to the state. 

“This is an ongoing process, and we are cooperating with ODE,” he said.  

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