Use of federal dollars called into question

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State releases findings of investigation into some practices of Owen County School District staff

By Molly Haines

The Kentucky Office of Education Accountability recently wrapped up an investigation centering on actions of a former district employee.
The OEA began the investigation in October 2011 after receiving an anonymous complaint from within the Owen County School District.
According to the OEA’s final investigative report, obtained by the News-Herald in a request for public records, Owen County School District Superintendent David Raleigh permitted Leslie Robertson, former district assessment coordinator, to receive her regular salary from the Owen County School District for days she was out of the district, engaged in a private consulting business.
According to the final investigative report by the OEA, Robertson had a 240-day contract with the district but also had a private consulting business providing training to other schools and school districts throughout the state.
According to the report, Robertson said she made up all days or used non-contract days for time she was absent from the district doing her consulting business. Robertson told investigators she worked many more days than her contract required, often working through Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks as well as many Saturdays and Sundays.
According to the report, Robertson said Raleigh authorized her to work on weekends to make up some of the days she was out of the district for her consulting business. The investigation also revealed that Robertson had used non-contract days to conduct professional development for her personal consulting business.
In an interview with OEA investigators, Raleigh confirmed he authorized Robertson to use weekend work to make up for days she was out of the district on her personal consulting business.
Raleigh and Robertson told OEA investigators the district did not suffer any loss of service by Robertson’s being out of the district on her personal consulting business because she worked in excess of the 240 days required by her contract.
In a review of Robertson’s individual employment contract, the OEA found no stipulations requiring Robertson to complete her duties on a Monday through Friday work week schedule.
However, according to the Owen County School District Board Policy, certified employees are not to accept outside employment or activities that would prevent them from fulfilling regularly assigned school duties and obligations. Employees are not to perform any duties related to an outside job during their regular working hours.
According to the report, the board policy prohibits the kind of activity Robertson was conducting. The report says Robertson’s business took her away from her regularly assigned obligations during regular work hours.
According to board policy, no certified employee should leave their job assignment during duty hours without approval from their immediate supervisor.
According to the report, the policy allowed Raleigh the flexibility to permit Robertson to leave during regular work hours to conduct her private consulting business.
Because there is no board policy requiring work hours must be worked on a Monday through Friday, the OEA could not find a violation of district policy.
However, on Oct. 5, 2011 Robertson used two days of fall break on a consulting trip to Laurel County. According to the report, as a 240 day contract employee, Robertson should have utilized a non-contract day because she did not receive regularly scheduled school breaks like fall break. The report says any time taken off for fall break should have been non-contract time and working two days of fall break did not make up the day she was out of the district for her private business.
In an interview Monday, Raleigh said former Owen County School District Superintendent Mark Cleveland had allowed Robertson to use non-contract days for her consulting work. Because Robertson had used the non-contract days for consulting prior to his hiring, Raleigh said he did not see a problem with allowing Robertson to continue using those days for her consulting business.
Raleigh said Robertson’s use of non-contract days was no different from another employee using non-contract days for personal use or vacation time.
Robertson, who now works for the Oldham County School District, said she could use the non-contract days however she wanted and the Oct. 5, 2011 consulting date was an oversight on her part.
“I should have taken a non-contract day,” Robertson said. “It was an oversight and when OEA brought it to my attention I didn’t argue it. They were absolutely right. My job never suffered in Owen County because of those non-contract days.”
As a result of the allegations and the OEA investigation, Raleigh said he will no longer allow weekend days to be used in lieu of non-contract days and if an employee needs to be out, they will not be permitted to count those days as a work day.
As for the Oct. 5, 2011 consulting date in Laurel County, Raleigh said it was an oversight and Robertson normally would have taken a non-contract day.
According to the report, Raleigh also permitted Robertson and Owen County School District Finance Officer Sheila Miller to utilize Title I and Title II funds inappropriately.
According to the report, Robertson created a professional development program for the district in 2011 which consisted of several days of professional development which was billed as a “Mini PD Conference.”
The conference was held July 25-29, 2011. Door prizes were to be awarded daily at the conclusion of the morning and afternoon sessions.
The door prizes, according to the report, consisted of two iPads, three Dell laptops with cases, two digital cameras, and three document cameras, all purchased with Title I funds.
Under Title I, the district gets federal money earmarked to support the comprehensive district improvement plan (CDIP), the comprehensive school improvement plan (CSIP) and needs assessments.
According to the report, most of the participants in the conference received drawstring bags or a briefcase with the district logo on them, which were also purchased with Title I funds. Smaller items, including charts, books and baskets, were also purchased with Title I funds and given away as door prizes at the conference.
An estimated $4,712 was spent from Title I funds for the purchase of door prizes for the conference.
The investigation also revealed that approximately $1,500 of Title II funds was used to purchase items to be given away during the conference. Items purchased for door prizes included two hard drives, four wireless keyboards with mouse bundles, 10 digital cameras, two laptop cases, 40 SD card readers, 40 SD memory cards, and 30 flash drives.
Title II is federal funding utilized to improve classroom instruction to improve student achievement.
According to the report, Robertson told OEA investigators that the purchases were allowable because the items were to help increase the use of instructional technology.
Robertson told investigators that each prize winner was required to have the item tagged as part of the district’s inventory, to use the prize in their classrooms and to submit a statement as to how the prizes were being used in the classrooms.
Robertson also told investigators that if a prize winner left the district or was not using the prize appropriately, they would be required to turn it into the board office and it would be given to another teacher in the district.
Through interviews with prize winners and review of documents obtained in the investigation, the OEA learned that at the time the prizes were won, none of the prize winners were told that the prize had to have an inventory tag and could only be used for school purposes.
According to the report, three months after the conference and on the day of the OEA’s visit to the district, an email was sent by Robertson to the prize winners advising them that the prizes were for use in the classroom. She also requested that each prize winner provide her with the serial number from the item won and a short paragraph of how the item was being used in their classroom.
In one response received by Robertson, a teacher said she was using the item at her home. Robertson responded to her that she needed to know how she was using it in her classroom.
Raleigh said on the day of the conference, a sign was hanging near a wheel for drawings that informed participants the prizes were for district use and that two principals were setup nearby to get serial numbers from the prizes for tagging later on.
Raleigh said Robertson had consulted with the Kentucky Department of Education prior to purchasing the door prizes.
Because the items purchased were technology related, Raleigh said he believed the money could be spent on such items because they would improve the quality of instruction within the classroom.
Robertson said the she talked with KDE before setting up the conference and told them about the prizes.
“I wanted to save the district some money and still get teachers the chance to go to a conference,” Robertson said. “All of the items given away were connected to the CDIP and CSIP and was approved by a vendor. If the state thought that we were mismanaging funds, Owen County would be paying back a lot of money right now.”
According to the report, the OEA concluded that the use of Title I funds to purchase the prizes for the conference was not an allowable expense because neither the comprehensive district improvement plan nor the technology plan documented the need for the purchases or the funding source to be used for the purchase.
The report also says Robertson inappropriately used Title II funds to purchase items to be given away as door prizes.
Also under the second allegation, the report says Robertson authorized a contribution of Title I funds in the amount of $2,000 to the Catalyst of Hope Conference which was sponsored by a non-district agency.
Raleigh said the Catalyst of Hope Conference is like a “parent pep rally” and encourages more parent and community involvement in the school district.
“Under Title I money we have $2,000 a year to spend on parent involvement,” Raleigh said. “We had never spent that money before. It had always carried over. So we hosted the conference and the contribution was supposed to be spent on sack lunches for the participants and vendors.”
According to the report, the non-district agency used the funds for purchasing give-away prizes.
Raleigh said the contribution was an allowable Title I expenditure, but once he, Robertson and Miller learned of the problem, Miller made changes to reflect that the donated money was from the general fund and not Title I funds.
Although the correction was made, according to the report the donation and the correcting of the errors would require board approval pursuant to state law.
In a summary of the report to the members of the Owen County Board of Education, Raleigh said he was not aware that the correction required board approval.
The OEA also investigated salaries paid to teachers from Title II, Part A (“Teacher Quality”) funds from 2010 to 2012.
According to the report, three teachers, an elementary teacher, a high-school mathematics teachers and a high-school chemistry teacher have each been paid from Title II funds.
According to the report, Title II, Part A funds can only be used for class-size reduction. The two high school teachers are the only teachers teaching their particular subject areas, so their positions cannot be considered class-size reductions and Title II, Part A would not be the correct funding source.
Raleigh said he believes Robertson and Miller allocated funds for the positions based on guidance received from the Kentucky Department of Education and federal funding training.
“(Miller) and (Robertson) did exactly what they were advised to do,” Raleigh said. “They’re very fiscally responsible.”
The OEA also investigated Robertson’s salary, which part of had been coded as professional development instruction out of Title I funds. The other part of Robertson’s salary had been coded as regular instruction. The remainder of her salary should have been coded to other district administrative support, not as regular instruction.
A review of expenses submitted for which Robertson received reimbursement also found several coding errors.
In July 2010, Robertson submitted an invoice for payment in the amount of $58.24, for professional development participants’ math lunch at the Smith House Restaurant, which according to the report was reimbursed from Title II funds and coded as supplies.
The investigation also revealed that Robertson submitted requests for travel reimbursement.
On each occasion, the reimbursement from Title II funds was coded to the “superintendent’s” travel account.
The occasions included $70.14, which Miller said was mileage to Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative meetings, $26.04, and $202.90 were also mileage to OVEC meetings.
An amount of $789.95 was requested by Robertson for mileage to OVEC, Association of Educational Supervisors, District Assessment Coordinator and Evaluation Training meetings with $227.04 of that coded to the “superintendent’s travel account.”
According to Miller and Raleigh, the superintendent does not have a travel account for his personal use. The account is designed to cover the entire superintendent’s office staff.
According to Raleigh, expenditures reimbursed for meetings that are not allowable expenditures under federal programs are reimbursed to employees through the general fund. The code used for the reimbursement fell within the range of codes for the superintendent’s office because she was physically located in the office.
According to the report, on four occasions Robertson submitted requests for meal reimbursement and on each occasion, the reimbursement was paid from Title II Part A funds.
Two of the reimbursements, one on Feb. 11, 2010 for $72.17 at Gibby’s in Frankfort and one on July 9, 2010 in the amount of $58.24 were while Cleveland was still superintendent.
The other two, one on Nov. 8, 2010 for $98.40 at Applebee’s in Frankfort and one on Jan. 19, 2011 for $36.85 at Longhorn Steakhouse in Frankfort were after Raleigh became superintendent.
According to district board policy, money spent for food while on out-of-district, overnight trips are reimbursed in accordance with procedures developed by the superintendent, when an overnight trip is required.
Because no overnight trips were required on the occasions for meal reimbursement, meal reimbursement should not have been paid.
According to Raleigh, he and Miller are aware that the expenses are not allowable through Title II Part A funds and reimbursement of meals will no longer be an issue.
As a resolution to the findings by the OEA, Raleigh or his “designee” must obtain three hours of training from a Kentucky Department of Education certified trainer on the subject of “allowable use of Title I and Title II funds by a school district” and from a KDE approved trainer, three hours of training on the “complying with the model procurement code.”
Proof of completion of the trainings was originally supposed to be provided to the OEA by Aug. 30, but the OEA has given an extension until Sept. 30.
Raleigh said Miller and Owen County School District Assessment Coordinator Danny Osborne have received training in Title I and Raleigh will receive training in Title II.
Miller will complete the three hours of training in model procurement.
Both Raleigh and Robertson said they took full responsibility for the findings in the OEA report.
“This was a witch hunt against me,” Robertson said. “It was personal. Whoever filed the complaint was out to get me. I take responsibility for the spending of the money involved and how it was appropriated. Those things are a reflection of me, but none of the mistakes I made cost the district a dime. There was never a decision with money, or otherwise, that I wasn’t confident was allowable through my training and collaboration with KDE.”
Raleigh he wanted people to know that he took full responsibility.
“We don’t intentionally do anything wrong,” Raleigh said. “If we’re out of compliance or something goes wrong, we take the steps to correct those things. ... Our attorney Jim Crawford looked at the OEA report and he didn’t see anything glaring. Some people are saying we broke laws. If that was the case, our attorney would be all over it.”