Grants Given for Nonexistent Students

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The D.C. school system received almost $4 million in federal funds for educating migrant children when it did not have any, city and federal officials said yesterday.

The school system received $3.85 million between 1994 and 2004 for children whose families had seasonal employment in agriculture and fishing. The U.S. Department of Education awarded the grants on an annual basis based on information submitted by D.C. education officials.

Federal education officials did not give information yesterday on how many children were claimed by D.C. officials to have been served under the grants. The receipt of money for migrant students was first reported by the Washington Examiner.

Melissa Merz, spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, said city attorneys have looked into the issue "and believe that the D.C. public schools drew down these funds in error." The office is working on a resolution with federal attorneys from the Justice Department, Merz said. Local jurisdictions can face fines for the misuse of funds under the federal False Claims Act.

Alex Gopinow, acting director of the U.S. Office of Migrant Education, said in a statement that when the program was established in 1966, "it was generally understood that D.C. did not have any opportunities for temporary or seasonal employment in agriculture or fishing." Gopinow said, however, that it was possible that families might have settled in the District within three years of doing migrant work, as allowed in the program's eligibility requirements.

"The possibility of migrant families living in D.C. was still not an unreasonable occurrence," Gopinow wrote.

When federal education officials had states verify their migrant students in 2003, the District could not find any, Gopinow said in his statement.

The possible misuse of federal money is one of several issues that Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee faces as she defines her top priorities for reforming the 55,000-student school system. Her spokeswoman Mafara Hobson referred an inquiry yesterday on the migrant grant issue to city attorneys and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist recently announced a new director of the federal grants office and said through a spokesman yesterday that the office would comply with all federal regulations.

The school system is under a high-risk designation from federal education officials dating to April 2006. The federal education department said that the school system had poorly accounted for its federal education funds, which represent about 14 percent of the system's budget.

Rhee and Gist are working with federal officials to make the fixes that have been spelled out by federal officials in a 29-page "corrective action plan."

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