Wednesday, April 23, 2014 5:15 AM
Published on: Thursday, January 16, 2014
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE – The school system is set to reimburse Rock Terrace School students who had money withdrawn from their bank accounts, but an advocate for the families says Superintendent Joshua Starr’s plan is a lowball offer.
The school serves students ages 11-21, who have a range of significant cognitive and physical disabilities. Those students participated in transition-to-work programs in order to teach them life skills and prepare them for life after high school. They received wages, according to Montgomery County Public Schools, in order to gain experience about handling money.
However, the students’ parents say they were not aware of the bank accounts and that school staff withdrew money from the bank accounts without their knowledge or the students’ permission.
The school’s former principal, Dianne G. Thornton, retired in August after 12 years at the position. MCPS completed its own investigation, but chief operating officer Larry Bowers told parents there were no findings of fraudulent behavior. He did say money was poorly managed and bank statements are missing. He also said money was taken out of accounts and used for “program purposes” such as an end-of-the-year picnic, graduation receptions, and outings paid for by the school.
“There are lots of things we know and lots of things we don’t know,” Bowers said.
The case is also the subject of an investigation by the county state’s attorney’s office and a grand jury probe.
In order to rectify the situation, Starr proposed a plan to pay back the students. Some of the students participated in a school support worker program in which students received a $3.65 per day stipend paid out of MCPS funds. Because there are W-2s, MCPS is able to track the funds and the students will be reimbursed at the amount listed on the forms.
Bowers said the reimbursements will cost between $23,000 and $24,000.
Other students participated in an in-school transition program, but there is less information available for that program. Bowers said that money came from the school’s independent activity fund, and was transferred back into the fund.
Starr proposed paying the students in this program a flat amount of $200 per student - amounting to $17 -18,000 total.
“The $200 amount is more than some of the students received and less than others received, but I believe it is important to make a good faith effort to acknowledge the deficiencies in the way these programs were run and to rebuild the trust of this community,” Starr said in a memo to the Board of Education.
Lyda Astrove, a special education advocate who has been helping the students and their families, said Starr is low-balling them and that $200 is an arbitrary amount. Not one student should be underpaid, she said.
“$200 is based on nothing other than (Starr’s) feelings,” Astrove said. “I still say the only fair to figure out how much everybody is owed is to hire an auditor to get permission from the parents to access bank accounts, get the records and calculate the losses instead of coming up with some arbitrary number based on however he was feeling at the time.”
The Board of Education voted to endorse Starr’s plan after being assured that if parents or students are able to provide additional information to MCPS that shows they are owed more than $200, then the school system will look at the information and increase the reimbursement.
Mike Durso was the only board member to vote against endorsing the plan. He requested the board hire an outside auditor, but the rest of the board was not receptive to the idea.
“This plan is a good first step to try and rectify this but I have to ask myself, would we be better off being investigated by an outside group? There are credibility issues.
MCPS’s credibility is shot right now, Astrove said. Along with figuring out how much students are owed, she said someone needs to figure out where all the money went and how it was used.
“The way to get that credibility back is not to write a $200 check. The way to get their credibility back is to take the hard and difficult steps to doing this the right way and hire an independent, outside person.”
Board president Phil Kauffman said the situation has been stressful for the families and for staff, and it is important to restore trust.
While he acknowledged Starr’s plan may not completely restore trust, he said it is “the best we can do under the circumstances.”
Starr’s plan also calls for MCPS to stop paying students for work programs throughout the county until a work group is able to meet and determine what the best practices are.
“I believe there well may be educational merit to helping students with severe disabilities who possess the ability to become employable after graduation make the connection between work and pay,” Starr said.
“I am not convinced that it is necessary to use money to make that connection.”
Posted By: Diane Rose On: 1/18/2014
Title: Appalled, but not surprised
But for one member, the school board once again shows its cowardly stripes. How it expects students and parents to make a case for more money when they are not in possession of the relevant information is not explained by Mr. Kauffman. Perhaps they are supposed to hire psychics?
Posted By: Angry Resident - Disappointed Taypayer On: 1/16/2014
Unacceptable solution. These children should not only receive every penny taken from their accounts, but should receive more than the amount taken to compensate for lost interest. Why should the school system keep their interest?
Kudos to Mark Duso, apparently the only person with morals. The school system should definitely hire an independent auditor and the parents should insist it be mandatory prior to accepting reimbursement. It isn’t the students’ fault that the school system stole their money, kept poor financial records, lied to the parents and can’t account for the money that disappeared. The burden to make this right is on the school system, not the students or the parents. Makes me wonder what other missing money an independent audit would reveal.
Now the school system wants to regain their credibility and trust by insulting the wronged students with a lowball settlement proposed by Superintendent Starr. To add insult to injury, Board President Phil Kauffman said it was the best they could do under the circumstances. What would Starr’s and Kauffman’s reaction would be if they received a paycheck for less money than they earned and were told - sorry, we spent the money on various things but don’t have records of the expenditures, so the best we can do under the circumstances is pay you a penny on a dollar?
How disappointing that the Board of Education only has one member with morals and the school system has a Superintendent of Schools without morals. These members should be dismissed, as should Starr. Poor morals do not belong in our education system, portrays a bad example to our youth and insults adult intelligence. In addition, the taxpayers deserve an explanation.