Lawyer: Method of repaying special-ed students in Montgomery is ‘insulting’

A plan to remedy financial mismanagement at a Montgomery County special education school immediately drew attacks from critics who said it does not go far enough to help students reclaim work-study funds that school officials withdrew from their bank accounts.

On Friday, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr released details of a proposal he said was intended to rebuild trust with families at Rock Terrace, a special education school in Rockville. Starr proposed providing payments to more than 100 students who had school-arranged bank accounts dating to 2006.

Rock Terrace families allege that bank accounts were set up for students without their parents’ knowledge and that work-study funds were deposited and withdrawn from those accounts for years. The Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office is investigating the case, and a school system investigation found that money was inappropriately used for school programs. Rock Terrace’s principal was placed on administrative leave amid the school’s problems and retired last summer.

Starr’s proposal — which is scheduled to be discussed at a school board meeting Tuesday — would make payments to more than 30 students based on information on federal W-2 forms for each student. An additional 75 students, for whom records are limited, would be paid $200 each.

In developing the proposal, schools officials did not confer with families.

“Not only does this offer not build trust, it’s insulting and it only makes it worse,” said Lyda Astrove, a lawyer who has advocated for Rock Terrace families. “I can’t convey in strong enough terms how insufficient this is.”

Astrove said the Rock Terrace students “deserve every penny” they were paid through work-study programs and should not be underpaid because school leaders cannot find records they were responsible to keep.

“Two hundred dollars is a low-ball, sleazy offer,” Astrove said. “The only fair thing is they need to hire an independent auditor to figure out individualized, accurate payments, family by family.”

Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said Friday that the proposal is intended to be equitable and fair but “part of the challenge is we don’t have the documentation” to determine how much money is missing. Families may request reviews of their cases, he said. “If they have documentation that shows there was more, we certainly will talk to them about that,” he said.

Rhonda Turner, whose son attended Rock Terrace, said she read about the proposal Friday with frustration. Communication with Montgomery officials, she said, has been a problem for months.

“These children worked hard for this,” Turner said. “They’re doing this to children with disabilities.”

Turner said her son, who has Down syndrome, worked for a time stuffing envelopes and shredding paper. Then he worked in Rock Terrace’s kitchen and an on-site bistro.

“I feel the majority of these children earned a lot more than $200,” she said. “I feel they are taking advantage of them.”

Astrove also strongly objected to the proposal’s contention that children were not being compensated for work but rather received small amounts of money as part of an educational program that taught about real-life experiences.

“That’s baloney and insulting to the program itself,” Astrove said. “The purpose of Rock Terrace is to teach the skills to be as independent as they can possibly be, and that includes paid employment.”

She argued that students who perform such tasks as making salads are working. “Maybe a little of that was learning, but after that, it was work,” she said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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