Montgomery moves forward on plan to remedy mismanagement at special education school

Montgomery school leaders are moving forward with a plan to make payments to students at a special education school for withdrawals from their school-arranged bank accounts, in spite of strong criticism that the proposal is inadequate.

The school board voted 6 to 1 last week to support the plan offered by Superintendent Joshua P. Starr to resolve mismanagement of work-study funds at Rock Terrace, a special education school in Rockville. Board Member Michael A. Durso opposed the plan, and student board member Justin Kim was absent.

The action comes more than seven months after Rock Terrace’s problems came to light, with school families alleging that bank accounts were opened in students’ names, without parental knowledge, and that deposits and withdrawals were made for years.

Montgomery school officials have said an internal investigation did not find fraud, but determined that student funds were inappropriately used for educational purposes.

The Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office has launched an investigation, and in December a grand jury was scheduled to review bank statements.

As that inquiry continues, Starr’s plan would make payments to more than 100 students affected since 2006.

Under the plan, more than 30 students would be paid based on W-2 tax documents generated by the school district. Another group of 75 students — for whom officials say they have limited paperwork — would be paid $200 each.

Montgomery County Board of Education President Philip Kauffman said that Starr’s plan seemed a fair way to address a complex and difficult problem. In all, the plan is now estimated to cost more than $40,000.

“This has been a pretty stressful situation for parents, for staff,” he said at the board meeting. “It’s complicated. It’s messy. We had sloppy bookkeeping. We had pretty lousy financial management of what went on here.”

“I know we’ve said from the get-go we want to restore trust with the parents and the community,” he added. “I’m not sure whether or not this plan does this, but I think it’s the best we can do under the circumstances of having incomplete records.”

Families who believe they should be paid more than what has been assigned by school officials may bring in documents and ask for a review, he and others noted. “We’ll listen, and we’ll make whatever adjustments are necessary, so it’s not just, ‘Here’s $200, take it or leave it,’” Kauffman said.

Durso, the board member who dissented, said the plan seemed like “a good first step,” but that, amid community concerns, an independent analysis still seemed in order. “I just think there’s some credibility issues here,” he said.

Lyda Astrove, a lawyer who has advocated for the families of Rock Terrace, had called Starr’s proposal “insulting” when it first became public, saying the $200 payments amounted to a “lowball” offer.

After the board’s action, Astrove said she was heartened that Durso “seemed to get it,” but was disappointed in the outcome. “I still think they need an independent auditor to look at it,” she said.

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