State probe finds school officials’ kids enrolled in Nyssa migrant program

NYSSA—State officials have found nearly 50 Nyssa School District employees 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.

Newly-released public records show a state investigation identified 47 past or current district employees from 2016 to 2022 with 112 children enrolled in the migrant program, including a current school board member.

That’s up from earlier investigative results in October that identified 14 school employees who had 32 children improperly enrolled in the program.

That enrollment gave the employees access to free government services they otherwise could not have received.

The documents revealed the state education agency has corresponded with the Oregon Department of Justice about potentially illegal activities within the Migrant Education Program. Additionally, officials showed concern that the Nyssa district leaders and staff were not taking the investigation seriously. 

The state Education Department began investigating the Nyssa district in July 2021 after someone reported “a concern regarding irregularities” in forms used to enroll students in the program. The state in, October determined that one-third of those enrolled – about 100 – weren’t eligible. The Nyssa district gets extra funding in part based on student headcount in the migrant 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. Documents released by the state to the Enterprise under a public records request included documents sought from the school district in February but not disclosed. 

Darren Johnson, Nyssa superintendent, in March provided emails and other documents after assessing a $370 fee. He didn’t respond to written questions last week about his failure to disclose other documents, some revealing more trouble at the district than he has publicly acknowledged.

One such document was a Feb. 9 email to Jennifer Patterson, assistant superintendent of the Office of Teaching and Learning at the state education agency, upon learning the state was in the process of potentially reassigning management of the migrant education program. Johnson wrote that he planned to reassign Nyssa administrators to different positions within the district.

“It is obvious that we need to make some changes here at the district, particularly in how we handle federal programs,” Johnson wrote.

He said he hoped Nyssa could keep the migrant program in Nyssa, or at least the district’s portion program. His district manages migrant programs for the Adrian and Vale school systems.

Johnson said he had an experienced, “detail-oriented” principal in mind that he wanted to name the district’s federal programs director. This unnamed principal, Johnson said, would oversee all of the district’s federal programs, including the migrant education program.

Johnson attempted to assure Patterson the principal would have the time to dedicate all of the district’s federal programs.

“Perhaps a better person than me could carry the weight of regular Supt duties AND federal programs,” Johnson said, “but it is just too much for me to do it correctly.” 

In a Feb. 15 response, Patterson wrote that she could not advise Johnson on local staffing decisions but suggested he reach out to the other regional program superintendents, including Vale and Adrian.  

Patterson said the state officials are looking at all options “in terms of what are the next best steps” for the migrant program in the region.

Johnson also didn’t address new questions from the Enterprise last week about his district’s migrant education program in light of disclosures by the state.

In January, state researchers attempted to conduct interviews with 33 current and former Nyssa district employees with children enrolled in the migrant program over the last five years. However, the state staffers could not reach four employees and two others refused to participate, the state records show. 

According to internal emails Jan. 9 between Mary Martinez-Wenzl, director of Multilingual and Bilingual Education with the state education agency and Diego Contreras-Medrano, a researcher with the department, Contreras-Medrano reported that certificates establishing eligibility of ineligible families appeared to have been deleted from computer systems. 

“Oddly,” Contreras said, information of those families showed up elsewhere. 

Going into the additional interviews earlier this year, researchers anticipated interviewing only five employees, but the researchers found over 20 other employees with children enrolled. 

Marc Siegel, communications director with the state education agency, said in a Friday, April 7, email that those 14 employees had been interviewed.

The state records also identify Maribel Ramirez, a Nyssa School Board member, as participating in the migrant program.

In a Feb. 3 email, Martinez-Wenzl asked Merced Flores, director of the Oregon Migrant Student Center to have Ramirez interviewed again. According to Martinez-Wenzl, Ramirez told her she had three children enrolled and had been signed up by a school district employee. Flores said in a Feb. 4 email that Ramirez had four certificates of eligibility dating back to 2015. 

Ramirez didn’t respond to written questions from the Enterprise last week.

In a Feb. 3 email, Johnson attempted to assure state officials that the district was taking the investigation seriously. 

State officials questioned that during a meeting with Johnson in January, the emails indicate.

Johnson addressed concerns that Angela Sanchez, once the migrant program’s lead recruiter, was in the initial meeting when the state reviewed the district’s recruitment efforts. Johnson said Sanchez participated because state officials were reviewing the recruitments from the time when Sanchez recruited students for the program. From Johnson’s note, it appeared state officials were not happy with Sanchez being in the meeting. 

Johnson told the state investigators that Sanchez has since then been named a family engagement specialist within the migrant program and removed from all recruitment efforts. 

“We thought it was responsive to your request to have her present,” Johnson said. “We simply wanted ODE to have access to the information requested.” 

Johnson said he wanted to clear up any “confusion” about the district appearing not to be taking the investigation seriously. 

“If there is anything we are doing that is inadvertently conveying that we are not taking this seriously or fully cooperating,” Johnson said, “please let me know immediately and we will address it.” 

Assistance migrant families receive 

Siegel said migrant programs such as the one operated in Nyssa serve students ages 3 to 21 with parents who are temporary or seasonal workers in agriculture who have moved within three years. 

Those families can get extra school benefits, including full-time preschool, home visits, tutoring, and opportunities to participate in enrichment activities, such as the Close-Up Program, a migrant student trip to Washington DC, which Nyssa and other districts have taken part in over the years. 

Migrant students, Siegel said, can access the federal College Access Migrant Program, qualifying students for a host of scholarships to pay for college.  

Each region develops a recruitment plan that typically include strategies across school sites, employment locations, and community events, it remains unclear what Nyssa’s recruitment entailed. 

Siegel said families participate in interviews to determine if they are eligible. If they qualify, the recruiter completes a certificate of eligibility, signed by the parent or guardian and recruiter and used to register students in the migrant program. 

“All Certificates of Eligibility remain subject to review by ODE, federal program sponsors, and independent reviewers (as necessary) to ensure that the children enrolled meet the criteria for participation in the MEP,” Siegel said. 

Internal documents reveal that at least four Nyssa recruiters were associated with families deemed ineligible. 

State officials wrote that the problems developed in part because of a lack of training and the understanding that any child with a parent or guardian working in agriculture qualified a family for the program. 

In a Feb. 2 internal email, Martinez-Wenzl advised Flores that the state education agency had been in correspondence with the Oregon Department of Justice. 

Martinez-Wenzl asked Flores to review a “draft letter” sent to Nyssa families to identify who may have been “erroneously identified” by program recruiters. 

Siegel said that the education agency doesn’t publicly discuss “legal matters.” 

He added that no final determination has been made and the state education agency is still reviewing the Nyssa migrant program. 

What’s next? 

State education officials will be at the Nyssa School District for a week through Friday, April 14, to conduct school visits, review financial documents and address any questions, according to internal documents from the school district.

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