Nyssa district officials challenge findings in state probe of migrant ed program

NYSSA – Nyssa School District officials are disputing several of the state’s findings that the district mismanaged its migrant education program, according to newly-obtained public records.

In a sometimes-combative submission, school officials challenged the state to produce evidence of its claims, said its operations were no worse than others in the state, and changes in state management of migrant programs contributed to problems.

The district is expected to be presented with findings of the state’s core investigation into improper enrollment of students for migrant benefits. State officials in the past year have identified more than 47 past or current district employees with over 100 children enrolled.  

Nyssa’s program has been in turmoil for nearly two years as the state has investigated. Its ability to enroll new students for the special migrant benefits was taken away. The district remains at risk of repaying hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal aid because of improper enrollments.

A report by the state Education Department in March concluded that district officials misunderstood a basic premise of the program. It was designed at the national level to ensure that children of migratory workers in agriculture had a chance for a good education.

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

Nyssa school employees and board members didn’t understand the basic “mobility components” – that the student’s family must have moved within three years, the report said. State officials wrote that this came through during their interviews.

In its rebuttal, the district asked the state education agency for “evidence” on how state investigators concluded that Nyssa was confused about the program.

The district also responded to many other findings, but state officials say Nyssa’s answers weren’t adequate.

According to Marc Siegel, agency communications director, a preliminary review of Nyssa’s response found relevant information for just one out of the eight findings district officials challenged.

Seven responses, Siegel said, “lacked sufficient specificity” to resolve the findings.

The state education department began an investigation of the Nyssa district nearly three years ago after receiving an anonymous report that forms used to enroll students in the program had significant irregularities.

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

Families enrolled in the program get access to free government services they otherwise could not have received. Families can get full-time preschool, home visits, tutoring, and opportunities to participate in enrichment activities.

The state report reviewed documentation, parent involvement and the district’s management of the program.

The one finding Nyssa officials successfully contested involved a state finding that the district didn’t properly document procedures to consult with parents in the migrant program. The federal program requires parental involvement in the program’s planning, implementation, and evaluation.

According to the state report, parents from Vale said they were not engaged with the committee and did not know the other members. In addition, the report noted that parents said they couldn’t get to meetings because transportation wasn’t provided and they otherwise couldn’t attend.

In Nyssa’s April 5 reply, the migrant program leaders fired back that the district submitted fliers for committee meetings that were provided weeks ahead of time in Vale and Adrian in the past two years. The district also submitted text messages to parents in Vale and Adrian. 

According to Siegel, Nyssa’s response to the finding included enough specific information and evidence to resolve the concern.

Meanwhile, the rest of Nyssa’s defense will need to be revised, or the district will have to implement the state’s required changes or risk losing program funding, according to state documents.

Through interviews and information submitted, the state found that Nyssa did not provide opportunities for Vale and Adrian school officials to participate in budgeting. Nyssa disagreed, writing that district officials had always signed the paperwork as the “consortium school” and there were “no complaints.”

State officials found that Nyssa didn’t adequately assess that migrant students in kindergarten were ready to learn. The state report said evidence was missing of migrant student progress from kindergarten to high school. Also, the district didn’t release student performance data.

The district told the state that its data specialist left in November and much of the access to student information is gone. The district added that it was working on completing student performance data for last year.

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

The purchases were mainly for social activities, such as potlucks and holiday and graduation parties, according to the state report.

The purchases lacked documentation bearing out the need, state investigators noted.

Nyssa said it would now follow new guidance from the state to document why a purchase complies with federal regulations governing the program.

The Nyssa leaders said the district previously followed guidance from a former state director. 

To justify its expenses, the district included photos of other migrant programs in the state, claiming they also used migrant program money for social events.

What’s next?

Siegel said the state is working with Nyssa district leaders to schedule a summer monitoring trip. He said the purpose is to check on Nyssa’s summer migrant programs since the district has been designated a “high-risk grantee.”

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