Leader Blues

Monday, May 21, 2007

TOP STORY >>Cabot district: Don't blame us

Leader staff writer

Cabot School District is fighting back after an article in a Little Rock newspaper seemed to imply that district officials were responsible for the mismanagement of a federal grant for the state’s special-education program.

Dr. Frank Holman, school superintendent, handed out a letter during a school board meeting this week that not only denied any wrongdoing on the part of the school district but also said the school district stopped acting as a fiscal agent for the special-education grant because the state employees who ran the programs did not provide proper documentation to pay the bills.

“The article said (the state) pulled the grant. That’s not true,” Holman said in a later interview. “We dissolved it.”
Julie Thompson, spokesman for the Department of Education, said Friday after reviewing Holman’s open letter that if there was any confusion, it did not start with the Department of Education.

Thompson pointed out that a Department of Education employee was fired because of the irregularities.
“At no time did we say (the school districts) were responsible,” Thompson said. “We have not held the districts responsible and never intimated that they were.”

Jonesboro School District also was used to funnel federal money into state special education programs. The article that appeared last weekend in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said state auditors had discovered the Cabot School District made $25,554 in questionable travel disbursements to employees of the Department of Education’s special education unit.

Additionally, the school district allowed the director of the unit’s state improvement grant office to purchase about $17,000 worth of books and materials he had written himself.

Holman explained to The Leader that the federal money used for special education programs across the state can’t be administered by the Arkansas Department of Education. The programs are run by the state, but the money to pay for them must be funneled through school districts or educational cooperatives.

Essentially, Cabot cut the checks to pay the bills but had no oversight of the programs or the employees and no control over how the money was spent. The only compensation the district received for that service was the salary paid to the half-time employee who paid the bills, Holman said.

Holman’s open letter to state officials and school patrons says in part: “Our district has worked with the Arkansas Special Education Resource Center (ASERC) for almost 10 years and served only as a paying or fiscal agent. We did not supervise any of the employees or evaluate them for performance.

“We had several issues with the approval process the State Department was using and had communicated the concerns to (them) several times and in fact requested a meeting to discuss better accountability and payment processes. We met with them in Little Rock on at least two occasions to rectify the concerns and for a while things would be better.

“We had also brought to the State Department of Education Special Education Division’s attention a concern of a grantee being allowed to profit from the sale of their materials and was assured that there was not any conflict of interest involved.

“We did sever any ties with the ASERC division of the State Department of Education last year due to a concern of not having full accountability and lack of follow-up on their part. We have cooperated with the auditors and been assured we were not being blamed in any of the auditors’ concerns but were the fiscal agent with signed-off invoices by the State Department of Education.

“We are appalled and alarmed about the article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with Cabot District’s name being used over and over when in fact we were the ones that had brought this to the department’s attention and alerted them to a lack of accountability that they chose to ignore.”

Holman said the district has not been a funnel for grant money since June 30, 2006. Jonesboro also is out of the program. The work the school districts did for the state is now performed by educational cooperatives in Helena, Gillham, Monticello and Arkadelphia.