Angry and frustrated parents at Rock Terrace School confronted Montgomery County schools officials Thursday night, demanding answers, apologies and more transparency as an investigation into the special education institution’s finances continues.
The district held a meeting for parents to ask questions about a probe into financial problems at the school, where families were shocked to learn bank accounts had been opened in students’ names without express parental consent. Parents also discovered the school system had been directly depositing money into accounts as earned income, negatively impacting families’ public benefits.
“My trust is broken,” said Sara Sadeghi, who is looking to transfer her son to a private school next year.
Sadeghi said her son was not impacted financially by the stipends or the bank accounts, but said she wants to transfer her son because problems at Rock Terrace run deeper than finances, bleeding into the climate and culture of the school.
Inga Wilson, whose child graduated from Rock Terrace this summer, said she left the meeting feeling unsatisfied with the answers the school system gave. Wilson said she wanted more concrete information on the financial problems at the school and how the district would better communicate with parents in the future.
“Parents are angry, and they have the right to be angry,” Wilson said. “We’re still waiting” for answers.
The school system can’t yet answer all parents’ questions because the investigation still isn’t complete, Montgomery Schools Chief Operating Officer Larry A. Bowers said.
The school system’s initial findings indicated the finances at the school were “poorly managed,” but there didn’t appear to be any fraud.
Bowers said the school system was unable to determine how much money went in and out of the bank accounts over the years, answers the district hopes will be resolved as the school system and the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office continue the investigation. The State’s Attorney’s Office will subpoena financial records from the bank. Bowers indicated that the investigation could reach back for financial records from seven years ago and that at least 111 students have been impacted.
“What we need to do is make sure that we work together so that this incident doesn’t in any way affect the great work that people think about that is done here at Rock Terrace,” Bowers said.
Some students had received stipends through the work study program, and the students’ individual money was being used to pay for schoolwide programming or curriculum. Bank statements and tax forms were mailed back to the school, not students’ homes.
“We don’t believe that this was an appropriate use of funds,” Bowers said. “In other schools, that is not what happens with these funds.”
Bowers said he did not know how or if money would be returned to students until the investigators track all the money and the accounts, but “our interest is to give back the money.”
Parents in the audience, however, wanted to hear more from the school system.
“No where has anyone from MCPS said, ‘We’re sorry. We made a mistake. We screwed up,’” said Bob Astrove, an active parent in the community and husband of Lyda Astrove, who has been helping parents at Rock Terrace manage financial and legal questions. “Can you say that?”
After Bob Astove’s prodding, Bowers responded: “I’m sorry that this has happened. I’m sorry that the school is impacted and the students are impacted and the families are impacted. It’s not fair that there has been any blemish on any of the work that anyone has done” at Rock Terrace.
Rock Terrace principal Dianne Thornton, who has been placed on administrative leave during the investigation, announced she would retire starting Aug. 1. Katherine Lertora, currently head of Stephen Knolls School in Kensington, will become acting principal at Rock Terrace. District officials said they would begin the search for a permanent principal in the spring of 2014 after meeting with parents and school staff for input.
But parents say it will take some time and more work from the district to restore parents’ faith in Rock Terrace.
“We’ve lost all trust in the school system and this administration,” said Bob Fazekas, the father of a recent Rock Terrace graduate. “These are special needs children. These are parents who sacrificed their lives for their kids. This is not like a normal school.”