Local government, Schools

Nyssa to lose over $350,000 in migrant funding over improper enrollments

The state will pull more than $350,000 in federal funding from the Nyssa School District’s migrant education program, according to documents obtained by the Enterprise. 

The loss in funding comes after state officials identified 129 families with 277 children improperly enrolled for the past three years in a program designed to give migrant families extra help to educate their children despite having to relocate continuously, according to state documents. 

A new state report revealed 19 past and current district employees had 58 children in the program, which allowed them to access government services they otherwise could not have received.  

Jennifer Patterson, assistant superintendent of the Office of Teaching and Learning at the state education agency, said the federal grant which Nyssa receives is based on the number of students enrolled in the program. The amount would be amended, removing money for children improperly enrolled in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. 

Patterson said the state education agency is offsetting the allocation to ensure the funding funneled to the district is “based on the most accurate child counts available.” 

Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, said while the state Department of Education and the Office of Migrant Education figure out if there will be further adjustments to the federal grant award, he will need to meet with superintendents in Vale and Adrian to adjust their respective budgets in light of the reductions.

Besides potentially losing more than $350,000 in migrant education funding, the district intends to create a costly new administrative position to manage federal programs for $138,000 annually. This is in addition to the district proposing to up its legal costs in its upcoming budget to $160,000 after overspending its current legal budget by $60,000, paying out just over $75,000, according to Crystal Rideau, Nyssa’s business manager. 

“ODE has had no chance to hear from Nyssa regarding the eligibility determinations.”

–Darren Johnson, Nyssa school superintendent

He said the district is still evaluating the financial impact on the district in future years that could result in layoffs and other spending cuts.

The Nyssa School Board met in executive, or closed session, on Monday, May 22, to discuss the investigation with its attorney. The board didn’t take any public action on the issue in the special meeting. 

The Education Department began investigating the Nyssa district in July 2021 after a whistleblower reported “irregularities” in documents used to enroll students in the migrant program that parents or guardians sign. The Nyssa district gets extra funding based on student headcount in the migrant program generated through what are called certificates of eligibility. 

The investigation continues, and it will now include a forensic audit of the district’s migrant program, according to Marc Siegel, Education Department communications director. Siegel said the agency has not determined how many years the audit will cover. Meanwhile, key elements have been taken from the district to be handled by the state’s migrant education program. 

In May 15 email, Patterson told Johnson that the district might have to reimburse the overpayments. 

She said the forensic audit would determine how much with “greater detail.” 

The latest report, published on May 4, comes after a preliminary monitoring report which assessed documentation, process and overall management of the migrant program.

The new report includes findings of the nearly two-year investigation of the core issue of improper enrollment of children into the migrant education program.

For nearly 40 years, Nyssa has run the 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.

Migrant programs such as the one operated in Nyssa serve students with parents who are temporary or seasonal workers in agriculture who have moved within three years. 

Families can get extra school benefits, including full-time preschool, home visits, tutoring, and opportunities to participate in enrichment activities.

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

In the May 15 email exchange between Johnson and Patterson, Johnson expressed dismay about the process and the district’s next steps. 

“We had not received any clear information about the next steps in the reinterviewing process, including when Nyssa would have a chance to discuss what the re-interviewers found and provide information from our perspective,” Johnson wrote. 

He added that it appeared the state agency did not plan to allow the district to dispute the findings in the report, which instead was sent to the U.S. Department of Education. 

“ODE has had no chance to hear from Nyssa regarding the eligibility determinations,” Johnson wrote. “That seems to violate the process in the guide and is unfair.”

Johnson said when he asked the state education agency about the next steps, he received the final report sent to the federal government. 

Patterson disagreed with Johnson and said that families and employees were given 30 days to appeal ineligibility findings. So far, she said, nobody has challenged a finding. 

Nonetheless, she told Johnson that the district had 30 days from the report’s publication to appeal. 

Johnson wrote that part of what the district wanted to discuss were the concerns about the training and oversight from the state and the Oregon Migrant Education Service Center, the entity in charge of the migrant program across the state. 

Johnson pointed out that the report noted Nyssa employees signed off on certificates of eligibility that, in some instances, were missing the children’s names. However, he said, while that was not acceptable, officials at the state migrant education center also signed off on those certificates. 

“Isn’t there also an issue with OMESC’s oversight?” Johnson wrote. 

Patterson answered that “to the extent that any inconsistencies or concerns are evident, OMESC addresses them as they arise or are evident upon review.” 

Johnson asked Patterson if the state planned to continue interviews with parents to learn more about their eligibility for the migrant program. Patterson said that was possible, given that 160 families refused to be interviewed or could not be reached. 

The report one reason families couldn’t be reached is because Angela Sanchez, once he district’s leader recruiter, used her social media to discourage people from participating in the interviews Sanchez, who did not respond to a request for comment, was transferred to work as as a family engagement specialist after the state suspended local recruiting for the migrant program. She remains in that job, district officials confirmed last week.

In her Nov. 26 social media post cited in the report, Sanchez dubbed an interview request “fraud call” and that she was the only one who could call the families. 

According to the report, state officials heard from a family who had been dropped from the program in January 2023 – after the state had taken over recruitment efforts –  who had been coached to change their history by Sanchez. 

The report said Sanchez pressured district employees to enroll in the program. At one point, Sanchez presented one employee with a certificate for signature without their children’s name. The report noted Sanchez had the employee sign a blank document. The employee told state officials they never received free services from the program. 

The report concluded that Sanchez was responsible for 90% of the erroneous enrollments.

The report said Sanchez and Gabe Fuentes, the district’s program supervisor, received extensive training about program requirements individually and in a group setting. 

Sanchez did not respond to written questions sent to the district or phone and text messages. She also didn’t reply to a direct message on Facebook.

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