Education case settled for $1.5M

Posted May 22, 2009, at 7:48 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:47 a.m.

DANFORTH, Maine — The state Department of Education will be writing a $1.5 million check to the United States government to settle allegations that false information was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education regarding the state department’s eligibility to receive federal funds under the Migrant Education Program.

The news was announced in a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday. The news came as no surprise to state officials.

“This is nothing new,” David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said Friday afternoon. “We have known about this for some time, and we have agreed from the beginning that there were numbers that were incorrect. We wanted to pay back the money and we will.”

Connerty-Marin added that the state had worked with the U.S. Department of Education and with school districts in Maine to correct the mistakes that led to the state providing incorrect information.

Under the Migrant Education Program, the U.S. Department of Education provides funds to states and territories to assist state education agencies in providing appropriate educational services to address the special needs of migrant children.

The money helps support educational services for youngsters whose parents move for jobs in the agriculture, fishing or forestry industries.

States and territories are responsible for providing to the federal Department of Education an accurate count of eligible migratory children residing within the state or territory, officials from the Justice Department said in a press release.

According to the release, the federal government alleged that the state Department of Education, Portland public schools, SAD 14 in Danforth and the Maine Family Resource Center Inc., a nonprofit corporation responsible for identifying and servicing migrant children residing in much of the state, falsely represented the number of eligible migratory children residing within the state for fiscal years 2002, 2003 and 2004.

The Maine Family Resource Center in Danforth contracted with the state Department of Education to provide services to the children of migrant workers throughout the state, according to previous reports.

Based on the false child counts reported by the state Department of Education to the U.S. Department of Education, the defendants named received federal funds to which they were not entitled.

“We said that the [state] DOE falsely represented the number of migrant children residing in the state,” Charles Miller, spokesperson for the Department of Justice Civil Division, said Friday. “They received federal funds based on those numbers.”

Connerty-Marin said the state was provided with incorrect information by the entities involved in the suit and that it “was not intentional.”

“There were some students that were overidentified as being migrant children,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding of the definition. But that has been brought to our attention and we have worked with those involved to correct it.

“No one had the intention of misleading anyone,” he added. “There was no plan to deceive the system.”

The federal investigation of the possible misallocation of funds began in 2003. In 2005, Gendron told legislators that a review by her office and the state auditor’s office found inaccurate information on many certificates of eligibility that were required to be filled out for the program, leading to a sharp reduction in estimates of how many children were actually eligible. Gendron said she believed there were only 2,500 migrant families in the state in 2005 as compared with the estimated 10,000 families in 2001-02.

In 2005 the federal Department of Education was seeking a repayment of $5.3 million in overallocation, according to a previous report.

Officials at the Justice Department were unsure Friday of the exact number of children misrepresented or of the length of time the error was being made.

Connerty-Marin also did not have any exact figures.

Miller said there will be no repercussions for the state Education Department beyond paying the $1.5 million and that the Migrant Education Program will continue in Maine, a statement Connerty-Marin verified Friday.

Tony West, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, said in a written statement that the settlement “is an example of the Justice Department’s work in protecting federal taxpayers’ dollars and ensuring that federal monies are used for their intended purposes.”

Officials in SAD 14 were unavailable for comment Friday, and a phone call seeking comment from officials at Portland public schools was not returned by press time.

The press release indicated the settlement resulted from collaborative efforts by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine; the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General; U.S. Department of Education, Office of General Counsel; and the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.

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