Montgomery County finds Rock Terrace student banking program ‘poorly managed’

July 18, 2013

An initial investigation into allegations of financial mismanagement at a Montgomery County special education school found there was “no attempt to intentionally defraud students and their families” of money deposited into bank accounts that staff set up for the students.

County schools officials have been looking into parental complaints that staff at Rock Terrace School opened bank accounts for their disabled children without the parents’ knowledge. Parents found that money students earned during a work-study program was being deposited into those accounts and was reported to the federal government as earned income, which affected disability checks and other public benefits.

Officials found that the money was withdrawn from the student accounts to fund educational activities at the school, according to a letter Montgomery County Public Schools sent to parents Thursday afternoon. “The investigation did find that the program at the Rock Terrace School was poorly managed and that money was inappropriately used to support the educational programs at the school,” the letter said.

The school system’s investigation revealed bank records missing from the school, and the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office plans to subpoena account records from the credit union where the accounts were opened for students, part of a separate review.

Schools officials acknowledged that keeping parents in the dark about the accounts was “not appropriate and demonstrated poor management of the program,” and they found fault with using the funds for school programs, but so far they have not found evidence of fraud.

“While the intentions of staff appear to be good, the use of the funds in this manner was inappropriate,” according to a summary of the investigation’s findings to date.

Principal Dianne G. Thornton, who had been placed on administrative leave during the investigation, has announced she will retire from the school system effective Aug. 1.

Work-study programs at Rock Terrace and other high schools will continue next year, but the school system will stop providing student stipends until “the district is able to clarify whether these stipends should be treated as earned income.”

The admission of mismanagement from the school system is a “good, important first step,” said Lyda Astrove, a special education attorney and advocate who has been working with parents of Rock Terrace students.

“There’s still lots of questions, but I’m more encouraged than I was before that [the district] is going to ultimately answer everything,” Astrove said.

Montgomery County plans to further address the investigation at a public meeting on July 27 at 7 p.m. at Rock Terrace.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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